Ellen Murray moved to San Francisco in 1967, the year Joan Didion hung around the Haight and lampooned its apolitical hippies in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” But Murray, then 22, didn’t come all the way from Massachusetts to drop acid or trail after the Grateful Dead. Instead, she fought gentrification in the Mission, participated in a strike against institutional racism at San Francisco State University, and eventually became a bus driver for Muni, a career choice informed by her radical politics.
Murray, now 78 and retired, has advocated for free Muni since becoming a driver in 1985 — long before Supervisor Dean Preston suggested a pilot program, or people with train emojis in their Twitter bios bemoaned “car dominance.” Murray, her husband John, who drove for Muni from 1974 to 2004, and their friend Victor Grayson, an ex-Black Panther who drove from 1994 to 2014, recently shared some history and perspective on the movement.
“Our concept was to go and work in strategic industries, so you could have some power,” Murray explained. “At the same time as fighting for the things we needed with our coworkers, we were trying to introduce a political analysis. Our biggest contribution to that was attacking the fare as a source of revenue for transit.”
During their years as drivers, the trio weren’t the only radicals at the bus yard, said John Murray: “When I started in ‘74, there were members of the Communist Party. Progressive Labor Party. Socialist Workers Party. Communist Labor Party. Communist Workers Party. And there was a Black Caucus.”
Of course, not all drivers at the bus yard were swept up in the period’s revolutionary fervor.
“We had Sandinista drivers, and we had Somocista,” said John Murray, referencing two Nicaraguan political factions. The former opposed the U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza García, but the latter supported him.
“There were some in the Communist movement, some who had been a part of the government that worked with the U.S.,” he added, of drivers from China and Vietnam.
Those who believed in a free Muni saw corporations as the entities that should pay up. This differs sharply from a Feb. 7, 2023, Municipal Transportation Agency suggestion that the organization close its budget shortfall through extending metered parking hours or expanding paid parking zones. The former drivers think revenue should come from businesses that benefit from the lines.
“The issue of fare evasion is not even an issue, it’s a non-issue,” Grayson added. “The real issue is what public transportation does, in terms of the economic vitality of the community. And responsible corporations need to pay their fair share.”
“Eighty percent of the lines are trunk lines, taking people downtown,” said John Murray. “Serving its corporate needs, shopping, getting people to work, getting them home.”
“People have always blamed the lack of funding on passengers or drivers,” added Grayson.“When corporations are the ones benefiting.”
Even in their time as drivers, Muni suffered budget shortfalls, which became personal. In 1985, SFMTA instituted “wage progression,” meaning that drivers needed to drive for four years before receiving full pay. The looming threat of further pay cuts led some drivers to argue with passengers over the fare.
“Some people thought, ‘look, we’ve got to collect this because that’s part of Muni’s budget and I want my salary,’” said Ellen Murray. “They felt like the fare was important to maintain their standard of living.”
Still, some drivers maintained small acts of defiance.
A fellow driver used to tell passengers who didn’t have the fare to wait for Ellen Murray’s bus.
“He’d say, ‘The free bus is behind me.’ Because I wasn’t going to push people about the fare, and he knew it,” she said.
John Murray said the earlier free Muni was a part of the revolutionary spirit of the times. As a student at New York’s City College, he bumped into the Progressive Labor Party and Communism.
“Everybody thought there was going to be a revolution in the ‘60s. Even the ruling class, they were really worried about it,” said John Murray.
Grayson drove for Muni from 1994 to 2014, after moving from Ohio in 1973 as a member of the Black Panthers.
“Bobby Seale’s brother, John, told me, ‘If y’all don’t bring your ass out here, consider yourself inactive,’” Grayson said of why he moved to Oakland.
Prior to moving, he had been arrested and acquitted as one of 12 Detroit Panthers accused of killing a police officer in 1970.
“You had all these people at Muni who had these scattered paths,” John said, of the different trajectories of himself, Ellen, and Victor.
“I think that was a reflection of how things were at the time,” John said. Nowadays, young graduates head to San Francisco to work in tech.
When the three worked for Muni, the job paid a living wage with a pension. Drivers still receive a city pension, but wage progression and the failure to keep up with the cost of living in San Francisco means that “it’s not the job it was,” said Ellen Murray.
“A little bit of class hatred keeps you going,” said Ellen, who retired in 2005. “You get to collect your pension longer.”