News for the East Bay's diverse, working-class majority.

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East Bay DSA

November 06, 2020

Waking up a “sleeping giant”: An interview with transit union leader Roger Marenco

Majority’s Richard Marcantonio interviewed Roger Marenco, President of Local Transport Workers Union Local 250A, about his experiences as a political organizer in the community and in his union. 

Political organizing against displacement in the Mission

I got involved in political organizing in 2000, when I was 18 or 19 years old. It was the height of the boom and my family  was being threatened with eviction from the apartment we rented in the Mission District in San Francisco. It was the typical story of greedy landlords wanting to evict low income, blue collar workers. We received a notice to vacate the premises within three days and we were just shocked. We were like, “What the hell are we gonna do? This is scary as hell.” 

I started organizing, because I didn’t know what else to do. I don’t know how, but I just started organizing. I knew it was the right thing to do. Within a couple of months, I had hundreds of people in front of my house, backing us up, at a rally against evictions, against gentrification and against displacement. After several months of organizing, we were able to overturn that eviction, and that’s how I got my foot in the door doing political organizing.

That was when I got involved with PODER. At that time, they were organizing along with the Mission Anti-displacement Coalition to build a movement against gentrification and displacement in the Mission. Some of the community based organizations were sort of like, “Who is this young kid, Roger, that’s organizing?” This is how I got linked up with PODER and the other organizations.

Tom Ammiano was the President of the board of supervisors, representing District 9, which includes the Mission District, and he came out in support of the mobilization that we were leading. I thought, “This is cool, this politician came out and spoke up on my behalf and my family’s behalf, and I felt the connection with him.” So the following week, I went to his office at City Hall and said “Thank you for coming out to our rally and for speaking up on our behalf. Do you need some assistance, I’d like to volunteer.” And he said, “You can start tomorrow.” I was an intern for his office representing District 9 and the Latino community, so I stuck with him for about two years, and gained a lot of insights pertaining to politics. 

A union member 

I started working at MUNI as an Operator in 2013. I drove the long 60-foot articulated buses out of Flynn division and my favorite line was the 14 Limited because it drove through the Mission. As an Operator of MTA, I was also a union member of Transport Workers Union Local 250A. Our local has 2,500 members. The largest group is the transit operators. That’s the people who drive the buses, the trains, the cable cars. Then we have the Automotive Service Workers who maintain the transit vehicles on a daily basis. We also have the Transit Fare inspectors who check the fare from riders and finally we have a whole bunch of  miscellaneous department groups from the Department of Public Health, which consists of disease control investigators, museum curators, and Health inspectors.

At that time, under our contract, we maxed out on our pay in 18 months and I thought, “Wow, this is great. We max out in pay after a year and a half.” But then the contract came up for negotiation and the union leadership brought to the members a tentative agreement that increased the wage progression from 18 months to 48 months, I thought, “Wait a minute, how could the union be asking us to ratify this contract?” 

Since I had already been working at MUNI for about a year and a half, this was not going to affect me personally. It was going to affect future generations of union members. And I was thinking, “Wait a second, we are living in one of the most expensive cities in the entire United States of America and you want us to increase the timeline for maxing out in pay from 18 months to 48 months….this is not right.”

And even though it did not affect me on a personal level, it affected me on a moral level because future union members would have to suffer this burden. I felt that somebody had to do something about this. That’s when I decided to start organizing in my union and to start educating the members about why this is an absolutely bad idea.

I started jumping on the buses, on the trains, on the LRVs [light rail vehicles]. And I started talking to people on a one-to-one basis. I was passionate about it. The majority of people were at least receptive. Some gave me a supporting hand and others gave me the finger and blew me off. But you know, that’s perfectly fine. In every movement, you’re always gonna have people that are neutral, people that are on your side, and people that are against you. That’s the reason why I did not let that get me down. I continued to educate our members and I continued to organize our members.

Unfortunately, the contract was ratified. So our wage progression went from 18 months to 48 months to max out in pay, which was a real bummer for me.

That was the start of my organizing here in TWU Local 250A. As an organizer, I tell everyone that I am just one person, I am one individual and that I cannot do this alone. I am always looking for leaders to step up and help out. I’m always looking for people who are ready, willing and able to take that leadership role. You have to vet your allies the same way that you have to vet your foes. You have to see who they are, what they think, how they act, what their politics are and what they stand for. That’s very time consuming.

One of the challenges was that a lot of MUNI operators had been here a lot longer than I had and this caused a lot of the veteran Operators to look down on me because I was still a rookie according to them. Luckily, some of the veteran Operators that had been here for 20-30 years listened to what I had to say and they vouched for me to other Operators. They saw that I meant what I said because I followed through with actions, and they said, “You know what? This guy’s for real. He’s out here in the streets. He’s talking to us. He’s organizing, he’s mobilizing, he’s educating us. He’s doing all of this. And we’ve never had that before. Therefore, we see that this guy is at least making an effort. He’s legit. Let’s give him a shot.”

So I decided to run for president of TWU Local 250A.

Running for president

The first time that I ran for president, there were three people running, including the incumbent and I lost. Even still, I did not give up. 

Three years later I ran again. This time I convinced Pete Wilson to run for vice president so that we could run as a team. Pete was one of the Operators that I had identified as a good leader when I was organizing. I said, if you run with me, together, we can win, and we’ll build our own slate that’s based off of something new, something different. We won’t just say, “Well, that’s how we’ve always done things, so we’re just going to continue doing it that way. We’ll do new things and we’ll bring a new agenda.”

Every month, I would send a mass group text message to all the operators that I had in my cell phone, letting them know about current updates, information or general membership meetings. Also, every month, I would print paper flyers and put them up at all of the divisions so that people could either get my text messages, or they could see the paper flyers to give them information about what was happening. On top of that, I created our Facebook group page which we did not have for some reason. That gave us instant access to current information from the members. Then I created a YouTube channel, where I did one educational video every month pertaining to a different topic, whether it was our contract, whether it was working conditions, whether it was health and safety, whether it was operators being assaulted. 

I was pumping out these videos on YouTube, and the membership appreciated my efforts. 

So people knew me, because I was out there in the public. 

I brought this up to the leadership at the time. I said, “Listen, we should start making videos for the membership. How come we don’t have social media accounts?” The leadership at the time said, “that’s really expensive.” And I said, “No, it’s not, you can do it on your cell phone, all you need is a $10 tripod.” And I proved to them that it was not expensive because I just bought a $10 tripod and started recording videos. The real reason they were reluctant is that this organizing, mobilizing, and educating was not in their blood, it was not flowing through their veins, as it does with me. 

Their style of leadership was “Put me in the office, let me take care of it. And don’t worry about how the future unravels. Just worry about electing me.” That, unfortunately, is ubiquitous, not just throughout union organizing, but also in general politics as well. Unfortunately, that’s the sad reality. 

I have told people, I’m not going to fix anything for you. Nothing at all, because I’m just one person, I’m just one voice and I need a team in order to make changes. I need union members standing beside me, not behind me. Because if you stand behind me, that means that there’s only one person at the front. But if you stand beside me, that means we have one big ass team. 

I told everyone, “This has been the problem for the last 50 years, you think that one person is going to make the difference by themselves. That is the crux of the problem. We have 2,500 members here, and you want me to go up against the MTA? The MTA has $900 million in their pockets. They have lawyers, they have supervisors on their side, they have judges and law firms and you want me to go up against them by myself…?” I said, “HELL NO”. I said, “I’m not doing a damn thing for you by myself. If you’re looking for a leader, well, then you better look in the damn mirror. Because that’s where leadership starts.”

When I lost the first election, it was interesting, because some people said, “Roger lost the election, that’s it, he’s not going to run anymore. He’s going to give up.” Those people obviously didn’t know me that well because my determination was still there. And it’s going to be there. And I told everybody, whether I’m the president or not, I’m still gonna make videos, whether I’m the president or not, I’m still gonna send you text messages every month, whether I’m the president or not, I’m still going to print flyers every month.

So what I ultimately wanted was more political involvement, more union engagement, and more interaction from our members, because this is San Francisco, we have so many issues, concerns and battles here but we can only address them collectively as a group. And we the TWU Local 250A members are a huge potential force to be reckoned with, but only when we come together and organize ourselves. 

When I started breaking it down to people in those words, they started to understand that we have been a sleeping giant for the past decades. Nothing happens without the Muni transit operators in this city. Without Muni Transit Operators, nobody goes to work, school, church, shopping, the doctor’s office.We are the bloodline that gives life to this city. That’s how strong and powerful we are, but only when we come together and organize ourselves as one group moving forward collectively as one unit.