With San Francisco's charter rules in place, this would have been a far shorter and more boring film.

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.

If, a couple of years ago, you were told that labor’s most reliable ally on the board would be the District 4 supervisor, you’d probably have been surprised. But that’s the case. Elections do have consequences. Photo by Joe Eskenazi.

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.

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. ok, this is the deal: you get a job in the public sector; you keep your job until retirement which is apparently fairly early at age 55; you have health insurance paid for; you have a nice pension plan; you cannot get laid off; fairly generous vacation/sick/ and other off-days; AND! you get a pretty good compensation; BUT! no strike! in the past, the other part of the deal was a fairly low compensation but not anymore.

    another thing: how many public employees does the SF gov need to function??? now it’s around 30,000 for a population of 870,000. that’s a skewed ration, isn’t it? unless one considers the service of the SF gov satisfying.

    1. “ok, this is the deal: you get a job in the public sector; you keep your job until retirement which is apparently fairly early at age 55; you have health insurance paid for; you have a nice pension plan; you cannot get laid off”

      Actually not true. Part of the problem is every time a permanent city employee retires, he or she is replaced by an exempt staffer, such that the city is FULL of “exempt” employees who can be fired at will. The unions are trying to fight back against this erosion of rights. Most city employees are underpaid AND precarious.

    2. Jean Michael- https://sfdhr.org/age-and-departments
      looks like there are about 26% of the city population over age 55 but some departments do have less incentives for retiring at age 65 such as police and fire since they are more prone to injury and death as they continue to work while their body gets weaker physically and takes longer to heal.
      Since inflation /cost of living in the city has been increasing faster than wages for city workers, there has been more people who cannot afford to live in the city and so end up costing them in commute time and transportation costs.

      Dude-
      They are still supposed to fill vacancies with permanent employees but have created a system where hiring a new employee takes so long that there is an increasing number of vacancies as the workforce retires and there are less people willing and able to wait to be hired while going through the city hiring process. They end up hiring temporary workers who are limited to 6mo, 1yr, 2yr, 3yr exempt positions which make them feel as though causing any problems can jeopardize their job or just not be hired in the future. In the past, there have been temporary workers who worked for over a decade in a temporary position because management never hired for permanent positions. Having everyone sign no strike clauses even if it is unlawful is one way to scaring workers into thinking they are not protected if they speak up since going on strike is the ultimate in protesting whatever is going on that is unfair and affecting everyone.

  2. High cost of living is often cited for higher wages for SF city employees. I’d love to know how many actually live in this High cost of living City vs outside the city.

    1. Maybe they’re living outside of the city because they can’t afford living in SF. As COL increases, so should wages. SF just got $11B. Where are those money going to?

    2. Ivan Ho- here is a link to where the SF city workers reside. https://sfdhr.org/residency Most live outside of the city since most are not paid enough or are not lucky enough to have found affordable housing within San Francisco. There are some who have been working for the city for a long time and have been living in the city since the times when it was more affordable.

  3. Honestly, when I read stuff like this my support weakens for subsidized housing designated primarily or exclusively for City employees. The “City family” claims that all employee groups are essential, vital for public safety and welfare. So how does that square with obtaining a right to strike? Either you consider yourself “family” or you think you’re in a hostile and adversarial relationship. Or is this “family” considered dysfunctional by its members..

  4. More public employees extorting money from hard working taxpayers. There should be a ban on public employee unions. They have no place in our system. They violate every rule of negotiations and resort to blackmail/

    1. The public employees are not extorting money. It’s your elected city officials who are extorting money. You have many hard working public employees in the DMV, Library, museum, social worker, construction workers, teacher, etc who just want a good paycheck to support their family.

      As the article mentioned, SF just got $11B. Where are those money going to? As the COL is increasing, so should their wages.

    2. City employees such as schools teachers and bus drivers are difficult to hire now. You drink coffee, you pay tips; you dine out, you pay tips. City employees do not even get tipped. When you work for private companies, you get breaks every workday. Bus drivers do not have breaks, it’s only lucky that they arrive at terminals on time and have just two, three minutes for restroom time. Teachers do not have breaks when the average class size is already 45-50 students. You try teaching students yourself, you will find out it’s even almost impossible to just handle 10 students. The city officials has usd 150,000 salaries while sitting in officials. These are the city employees who are extorting public money. They buy buses and street cars that are unreliable, and not looking out for public safety. They make teachers overwork and qualified teachers are leaving the Bay Area. Where do these highly-paid city official live? Nice neighborhoods in the Bay Area. Not the low-level city employees who live as far as even Sacramento and travel 3 hours both way to come to work here in the city each and every working day!