At this very moment, no matter what time of day “this very moment” is, there’s a halfway decent chance that representatives from San Francisco’s government and the more than two dozen — two dozen! — separate unions engaged in collective bargaining are sitting around a table, popping Diet Cokes, and attempting to hammer out a deal.
It would be tempting to compare these fraught and adversarial political maneuverings to Game of Thrones. Everybody compares everything to Game of Thrones. Well, let’s not: One involves a series of rapidly shifting alliances between warring parties that have little faith in one-another, in an attempt to win security and exert dominance — all under the looming existential specter of malevolent outside forces attacking the realm.
The other is a TV show.
You don’t expect labor-management bargaining sessions to be Happy Happy Joy Joy time in this or any city. But times are ostensibly happy and joyous. Contentiousness would be understandable during a recession, but we’re not in a recession. San Francisco’s revenues in 2018 easily topped $11 billion. Revenue has grown for 10 consecutive years, by an average rate of 6.1 percent — and, in that time, has just about doubled. There was 12 times as much money oozing around the city’s general fund at the end of 2018 as there was at the conclusion of 2010.
But nobody seems to be happy. Maybe it’s just too much Diet Coke and cold pizza, but everyone your humble narrator spoke to involved in the collective bargaining process is collectively ticked off.
In much of the world, when labor and management reach an impasse, the threat of a strike looms. American workers are striking in greater numbers, and in greater frequency, than they have for nearly three-and-a-half decades. Whether it’s teachers or hotel workers or others, labor militancy is on the rise.
But not in San Francisco. Not among the public sector, at least. Here, any employee walking off the job “shall be dismissed from his or her employment pursuant to Charter section A8.346.” New employees are made to sign a form acknowledging that “any employee who participates in a strike can be fired.”
But that may yet change. Supervisor Gordon Mar — perhaps the most labor-friendly legislator on a labor-friendly board — acknowledges that he is working with the city’s unions on exploring a charter amendment that would strip this language from the City Charter: language he and this city’s organized workers claim is both illegal and unenforceable.
“I am very interested in pursuing this,” Mar tells me.
And, perhaps, those ongoing, contentious labor negotiations just became a little more so.
Are the city’s charter provisions banning strikes illegal? Depends on who you ask. If you ask city officials, many say no.
If you ask judges — they say yes.
All the way back in 1985, the California Supreme Court ruled that “the common law prohibition against all public employee strikes is no longer supportable … strikes by public employees are not unlawful at common law unless or until it is clearly demonstrated that such a strike creates a substantial and imminent threat to the health or safety of the public.”
More recently, in 2017, the state’s Public Employee Relations Board unambiguously ruled that San Francisco could not prevent its workers from engaging in “sympathy strikes” — that is, the city cannot make its workers cross other workers’ picket lines.
Also in 2017, the Public Employee Relations Board stated that, “An employer may not impose terms that waive or forfeit the statutory rights of employees or their organizations to engage in concerted activity, including the right to strike. Public employees have a qualified right to strike. … there can be no unilateral forfeiture of the right to strike.”
So, what’s going on in San Francisco? Well, if this were Game of Thrones, we’d spice up this arcane procedural stuff by tossing in some incest or a beheading or dragons eating someone.
Sorry. That kind of stuff really hasn’t happened here since the 1970s.
Nor, for the most part, have public sector strikes.
That, in large part, is due to binding arbitration. In this county, uniquely, after public employee unions and management have given it their shot at the bargaining table, unresolved matters are punted to a neutral third party, who makes a binding ruling.
A union engaging in a strike is shut out of this arbitration process. That’s enshrined in San Francisco’s city charter, and the Public Employee Relations Board has ruled this is legally hunky-dory.
But this is not a “blanket ban on strikes,” as the city continues to assert. Rather, forfeiting binding arbitration would appear to be a calculated risk for a union that opts to strike.
So, the city’s position that it can fire unionized workers who strategically withhold labor — and its practice of making new hires sign papers affirming this — seems more than a bit tenuous.
“I think the people who run this city are really very smart. Do they honestly believe the charter language will stand up when it’s challenged?” asks Rudy Gonzalez, the executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council. “They should work with us and figure out how to amend the charter.”
Will the national trend of increasing labor militancy break through into San Francisco’s public sector? Or is talk of a charter amendment just short-term leverage to sweeten this year’s negotiating morass?
The answer may well be “yes.” It could be both.
Even formerly staid San Francisco unionists are out getting arrested for blocking the streets this year, demanding better contract terms. It’s hard to imagine that this city’s unions would see the success and positive coverage of striking teachers in West Virginia, Los Angeles, or Oakland and not want a piece of that.
The amendment Mar is contemplating would leave binding arbitration in place. But, as noted above, a union that figures it can do better by pulling off a strike than submitting to the whims of an arbitrator would likely go the former route.
Would that render San Francisco a chaotic realm of dragons and zombies and beheadings (i.e. the 1970s)? Not necessarily. This is how it’s already done everywhere else in California. We are the outlier.
But it would certainly shake things up around here.
So, that’s something that may well factor into the current ongoing Diet Coke and pizza and negotiating sessions. And, come November 2019 or 2020, it may end up on the ballot.
Winter is coming. Get ready to vote.