The battle for San Francisco’s streets in action. Credit: Aude at Wikimedia Commons
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San Francisco's oppressed motorists are fighting for change

They’ve been silent too long. 

Drivers in San Francisco have been having a hard time of it. All the public parking spaces created since the 1990s have been for cyclists. There’s no longer any requirement to build parking spaces for new houses and apartments. The transport agency even made them (gasp!) pay for parking on Sundays (mayor Ed Lee abandoned the policy after a year). 

But fear not – for like countless downtrodden, voiceless groups before them, the city’s motorists have come together to fight back. Earlier this week, a group called “Restore Transportation Balance” delivered a ballot initiative to the town hall, demanding a change in policy to pay more attention to the poor, ignored motorist. Ballot initiatives can be proposed by individuals or interest groups and are then voted on in a local election. To qualify, they need to collect 9,702 (yes, 9,702) signatures from locals, but, just to be safe, this one had 17,500.

In an editorial for SFGate, Bill Bowen, a member of the Restore Transportation Balance team, described the initiative’s backers as “a coalition of neighbourhood activists, small businesses, first responders, disabled advocates, parents, churchgoers and just plain folks”. Their proposals include:

  • Funding for car park construction;
  • A freeze on parking meter and garage charges for five years;
  • No parking charges on Sundays, holidays, or outside working hours;
  • Motorist representation on the Municipal Transportation Agency board; 
  •  A requirement that “traffic laws should be enforced equally for everyone using San Francisco’s streets and sidewalks”.

This last, somewhat passive aggressive demand is presumably directed at the over-mighty interest groups which have dominated the city’s transport agenda for far too long: bikes, pedestrians and the city’s street cars. The initiative is in part a backlash against another ballot in the election, a horrific proposal for a $500m bond to be spent on new public transport and to make the streets bus and bicycle friendly.

According to the annual TomTom traffic survey, San Francisco is the second most congested city in the US – a fact the coalition of motorists blames on the introduction of cycle lanes. That said, it’s also been rated the second most walkable city in the country by website Walk Score, based on how close schools, businesses and other amenities are to each other.

The proposals will both be voted on in November. Until then, the war rages on. 

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.