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.”
Please whatever it takes to get to rid of those horrible fare inspectors. They’re d1cks. All of em.
Faceless corporations. Easy to condem them, but wait, they pay wages. One aspect of wages is that the employer does not choose how they are spent. The employee could walk to work or cycle or drive, so deducting wages to finance the MTA would be unfair.
One could ask corporations to lower their profits [wicked word] but that would mean the returns earned by pension funds would go down. Pension funds are the largest investor in the stock market.
Let’s not mess around, let’s pay for Muni from the Muni pension fund, and cut out the middleman.
I retired from Muni 2019 started 2002 I know all three especially Vic 😁. When I started working for Muni out of Presidio I was told DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE FARE JUST DON’T HIT ANYTHING.Driving Muni Equipment around the City is not Easy the people on the bus in the street bikes scooters other Drivers NOT EASY AT ALL.I didn’t live in the Bay Area either 113miles 2hr drive so I lived in my Van for 17 yrs .
I would always tell the New Driver’s never worry about the fare and take your time be safe.
Thanks so much,
That’s my generation.
We thought Revolution or nuclear war were evident.
Dropped out of School to concentrate on the Movement.
Took me til I was almost 50 to finish.
Abbie Hoffman advised we all join the Army to humanize it.
I chose the Navy in 1962 and got $78.50 a month to blockade Cuba.
Later bennies can’t be beat for a Projects kid.
3k a month on rent alone.
Remember when the little short yellow bus ‘Jitneys’ ran in Mission ??
Clean with curtains and Jesus and Mary on dash with magnets.
Church music and strict Behavior rules.
Go Niners !!
Revolution? Even though it comes with its own interactions with the riding public (Reader broken), the urge for “free Muni” from the operators’ ranks must have substantially subsided since the introduction of Clipper – which means little, if any need for working the farebox any more.
Love this feature! I think there’s a path to bring that back today as several tech workers that do nothing but bemoan car culture and praise transit on twitter could be the conduits to instituting more transit benefits at their tech companies. Some companies already offer a monthly pre-tax benefit and free clipper loading but they should move beyond that and fund muni more energetically
Interesting Article. Thanks!