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Politics & Policy

San Francisco city unions rally for more pay, threaten to strike

A group is protesting with signs reading "FIX OUR CITY" in front of City Hall.
Hundreds of city employees packed the steps of City Hall to kick off a tough contract negotiation for over 25,000 unionized workers. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Hundreds of city employees packed the front steps of San Francisco City Hall on Wednesday as a coalition of unions launched what promises to be a tough contract fight, with the threat of strikes already in the air before negotiations have begun.

“We’re going to strike if we freaking need to,” said Kristin Hardy, the San Francisco vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, which represents about 16,000 workers.

The contracts of over 25,000 unionized public workers—including nurses, Muni bus drivers, plumbers, librarians, 911 dispatchers and more—will expire on June 30, according to the union coalition. As that date approaches, the unions will be negotiating new agreements with the city.

A group protests with signs reading "FIX OUR CITY," a woman in purple speaks passionately into a microphone.
Kristin Hardy, the vice president of SEIU 1021, speaks in front of a crowd of San Francisco public employee union workers on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

But the reset comes at a tough time. While labor leaders prepared to rally outside City Hall, Mayor London Breed’s budget director was inside presenting a bleak budget forecast showing a $245 million deficit in the fiscal year beginning this July and a $555 million shortfall the following year. To balance the budget, Breed has already told department heads to prepare for a 10% cut and to stop hiring new full-time employees outside of key staffing areas.

But the unions want the city to take the opposite approach to the thousands of job vacancies across the city. Letting those jobs go unfilled is shameful, SEIU 2015 executive Kim Evon said, adding that the vacancies can force city workers to take on the responsibilities of two or even three people.

There are currently about 3,000 vacant city jobs, according to the San Francisco Department of Human Resources. Despite those vacancies, city employment is currently at its highest level in the past five years, with 36,600 employees as of Jan. 1, the department said in a statement. That’s thanks to an efficiency project launched last year that has sped up how long it takes to fill vacancies and cut the vacancy rate by nearly 30%, according to the department. However, shortages persist in the behavioral health and public safety fields.

A protest in front of a stately building, with people holding "FIX OUR CITY" signs.
Hundreds of city workers are pushing for better pay and working conditions as the city faces looming budget deficits. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Labor organizers also decried the over $1 billion San Francisco pays each year to outside organizations to fulfill services for the city.

“Why are billions of taxpayer dollars being funneled year after year to private contractors outside of San Francisco?” said International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 President Bianca Polovina from the podium, drawing boos and jeers from the crowd.

“Mayor Breed appreciates and respects the rights of organized labor coming together around important issues, and she looks forward to engaging in the bargaining process that is already underway with our labor partners,” Mayor’s Office spokesperson Parisa Safarzadeh said. Labor groups have seen significant positive gains during previous negotiations with Breed, including the average annual base salary for San Francisco public employees growing 23% in the past five years and additional sick leave paired with no layoffs during Covid, according to Safarzadeh.

Workers Cite Burnout, Hazards

San Francisco’s leadership has focused too much on appeasing corporations, conferences and tourists at the expense of city workers, said Heather Bollinger, a registered nurse at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.

“It rubs me the wrong way because everybody that steps foot in this city is a potential patient at San Francisco General Hospital and we do not have the resources for that,” said Bollinger, who has worked as a nurse for 16 years.

As nurses at San Francisco General have become increasingly burned out, patients can wait for up to eight hours in the emergency department or six months for an appointment, Bollinger said.

The hospital has launched several initiatives to speed up nurse hiring as quickly as possible in the face of nationwide challenges hiring medical providers, the Department of Public Health said in a statement. When the hospital is short staffed, it adds additional support with contracted nursing staff, having nurse managers work with patients and more.

The average time to see a provider at the San Francisco General Hospital Emergency Department was 56 minutes in 2023, according to the department.

A large crowd holding signs that read "FIX OUR CITY" during a protest or rally, with many wearing blue and purple.
Hundreds of workers, carrying signs and making impassioned chants, made their presence known outside City Hall. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s Muni bus drivers have also increasingly faced hazards beyond dodging reckless drivers on the city’s streets, according to Anthony Ballester, president of the Transport Workers Union of America Local 250A.

Muni drivers see shootings, stabbings and robberies take place on their buses, all of which takes a toll on their well-being, Ballester said. A key component of his contract negotiation will be fighting for the city to offer hazard pay in a wider set of incidents, including instances when someone threatens a driver without actually touching them.

“It affects your mind,” Ballester said of the assaults.

Decades Without a Strike

San Francisco public workers haven’t gone on strike since the 1970s. That’s because the city outlawed public workers from striking following turbulent labor conditions that decade. 

A person speaks at a podium before a group, some with union signs, outside an ornate building.
Supervisor Connie Chan, who chairs the Board of Supervisors' budget committee, speaks in support of public employee unions at the Wednesday rally. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

But a keystone decision by the California Public Employment Relations Board in July 2023 ruled that the local prohibition on striking was unlawful, opening the door for the first walkouts in decades.

“I certainly hope it doesn’t come to that,” Supervisor Dean Preston told The Standard. “I don’t think that it’s an either-or. We can do right by our city workers within the realities of the existing budget.”

Supervisor Connie Chan chairs the Board of Supervisors budget committee, a position that may put her at odds with the Mayor’s Office as the city strives to balance the budget amidst the looming shortfall.

“It is time that City Hall do the right math for San Franciscans,” Chan said at the rally. “We can balance this budget; we can tackle this deficit and not on the backs of our workers.”