Hundreds of Union Workers Flood City Hall, Request it ‘Close the Gap’

Members of IFPTE Local 21 — which include our city engineers, utility workers, architects, and planners — say S.F. has been getting richer while its middle class gets smaller.

On Thursday afternoon hundreds of city workers wearing blue IFTPE Local 21 beanies spent their lunch break at a rally on City Hall’s steps, demanding better wages, an end to outside contracts, and additional investments in San Francisco’s skilled middle class. The rally marked the beginning of new negotiations with the city, and over the next few weeks, the issue will no doubt dominate conversations as politicians and union organizers work to find the money necessary to keep its workforce financially secure and present in San Francisco. 

It’s not a small fight; Local 21 members are what makes this city function, from the inside out. They run our sewer systems, repair our streets, design new housing, keep government websites running, and take care of our health. If negotiations go badly, their collective power as a striking force could bring San Francisco to a standstill.

“When you turn on your taps in the morning to brush your teeth and water comes out — that’s us,”  said Tedman Lee, president of the Professional Engineers Chapter of Local 21. “When you flush the toilet and all that stuff goes away — that’s us, too.”

The union’s asks are fairly straightforward, though the security they’re demanding for won’t come cheap. But their argument is sound: As San Francisco gets richer year after year, there has been very little investment in its workforce. According to union data, spending on the city’s labor force has declined from 44 to 41 percent of the annual budget since 2007. As housing prices have skyrocketed and the overall cost of living has risen, the city has lost seven percent of its middle-class workforce in 12 years.

Now, many city employees commute into the city, depending on an overstretched public transportation system to get to work. And those that have managed to stay here don’t have much wiggle room for family emergencies or — god forbid — being evicted from rent-controlled housing.

“We’re just looking for a fair shake,” Bianca Polovina, a compliance officer with the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement who works to protect workers’ rights, told SF Weekly. “For the few of us who are still living in San Francisco, we’re looking to stay here. The backbone of the middle class is the public sector, and so while we’re here fighting for ourselves we’re also fighting for all of San Francisco’s middle class.”

Polovina’s spouse also works for the city, and together they share a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment in the Haight. It works for now, but there’s little security in their future. “We will probably not be able to afford market-rate housing if we have to leave to start a family, or care for an elderly parent,” they said. “We want to stay, that’s why a lot of us are here. You can see from the size of the crowd that a lot of us take this really seriously. We’re really proud of the work we do, and we just want to be able to continue to do it.”

Luckily, a fair number of politicians showed up to Local 21’s event to pledge their support. Supervisors Gordon Mar, Sandra Lee Fewer, Norman Yee, Vallie Brown, and Matt Haney stood with the workers while rain drizzled down, promising to allocate more of the city’s $11 billion annual budget towards its workers.

“We see revenues going up around the city. We gave so much money to the state that they gave some back to us,” said Haney, referencing the $181 million windfall the city was just bestowed from California. “The sad thing is the one thing we don’t see growing in this city is the middle class… Let’s invest in the people who are doing the work every day. We need to make sure that no one who works for the city is pushed out of the city because they can’t afford to be here.”

Haney ended on an optimistic note. “2019 is going to be known as the year of the blue hats,” he added

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