Anti-capitalist actions around mass transit in San Francisco, 1993-1995

A personal account of some actions towards encouraging a "culture of non-payment" in a big city public transit system.

Submitted by Kevin Keating on May 27, 2007

In the spring of 1993, San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan launched an attack on the living standards of the city’s working class by demanding a fare increase of 25 cents per ride on MUNI. MUNI is San Francisco’s main public transit system, made up of motor coaches, trolleys, metro trains, and the world-famous cable cars, with approximately 686,000 passenger boardings every weekday. In response to Jordan’s attack, a small group of anti-capitalist radicals engaged in a seven-month campaign against the fare hike.

Class war occurs wherever the exploited and dispossessed confront market relations and the state, and not only in our struggles as wage workers in workplaces. Our potential power is greatest wherever we come together in large numbers; the majority of mass transit users are wage workers and poor people. Urban bus and subway systems probably bring together more members of the modern slave class than any other social space.

Our efforts were inspired by what we’d heard and read about similar struggles in other countries, particularly movements for "self-reduction" of prices in Italy in the mid to late 1970’s.

Our first step was to write and distribute a leaflet to MUNI drivers and station agents. Public transit workers are in the most crucial position for making a self-reduction effort possible. Also, we wanted to sabotage efforts by management to direct MUNI riders’ anger at MUNI workers, and help refocus that anger at the proper target, the commodity economy and its administrators. We pointed out the connection between the impending attack on working class people who ride MUNI, and inevitable future attacks on the wage levels and benefits of MUNI workers.

Our leaflet mimicked the layout and font of the San Francisco Examiner, one of SF’s two daily bourgeois lie-sheets. The Examiner had run a series of articles against city employees that singled out MUNI workers in particular as overpaid, shiftless bums. We had to get copies of our stuff to roughly 2,000 drivers and train operators, and a much smaller number of station agents in MUNI underground stations. So we began by boarding a MUNI streetcar, briefly talking with the driver and giving her or him a leaflet, then leaving the train car at the next stop. We went in this manner from one car to another, up and down the main inbound and outbound underground MUNI line, from Church Street to Embarcadero. After several days of this we were running into a number of the same train operators that we had leafleted earlier, and moved on to leafleting bus drivers.

Conveniently for our leaflet distribution efforts, a large number of MUNI bus lines begin and end at the intersection of Mission and Steuart Streets, and also in front of the Transbay Terminal building a few blocks away. We spent a few hours during several afternoon rush hours giving leaflets to drivers at these locations. The leaflet was generally received with sympathy from drivers, who frequently asked for extra copies to give to other MUNI employees. Over the next few weeks we were told by drivers that the leaflets were being reproduced on MUNI photocopy machines and left in workers’ mailboxes at MUNI yards.

By the middle of the summer we’d received enough feedback from MUNI drivers to know we’d reached a saturation point among employees of the transit system.

The Mass Psychology of Democracy
Soon after Jordan announced plans for a fare hike, a series of public meetings were convened in high school auditoriums in various San Francisco neighborhoods. These meetings were excellent examples of how democratic regimes allow the working class to petition their exploiters to govern them more effectively. The meeting one of us attended at the Mission High auditorium on March 30, ‘93 enabled the stupidest members of the audience to suggest measures more draconian than those initially proposed by the mayor.

Jordan appeared on the platform with other city government bureaucrats and entrepreneurs, their freedom of speech and assembly guaranteed by nine or ten armed policemen in the lobby and at the entrances of the auditorium. Jordan’s press secretary, Noah Griffin, walked around the audience with a microphone, like on Oprah, offering members of the audience a chance to express their opinions, while the real decisions were, of course, being made off stage.

When you pay the fare on MUNI you can get a transfer, torn by the driver to indicate that it’s good for two hours, or two more boardings, whichever comes first. For many years, street people had sold "Late-Nights" for 25 or 50 cents. These are untorn transfers that can be used for an entire day. Books of intact transfers were ripped off from idled, unattended busses, and street people in turn hawked them to riders waiting for the bus at the plazas of BART stations, like 16th and Mission, and 24th and Mission.

Towards the end of the evening, a number of speakers from the audience denounced the hardships that would result from a 25 cent (and 25%) fare increase. They were concerned for the fate of the city government’s budget, and demanded more action by the SFPD against sales of stolen bus transfers. Deploring the prospect of a 25% fare increase, these mathematically challenged suppliants demanded an alternative -- that transfers be eliminated altogether. This would result in a 100% fare increase each time a rider boarded MUNI. Many MUNI lines were designed with the intent that riders would transfer from line to line. Getting rid of transfers would mean riders who have to transfer two and three times traveling between downtown and outlying working class neighborhoods like Bay View or Excelsior would face a whopping 400% to 600% MUNI fare increase.

After three more public meetings, the mayor’s office announced that the representatives of the people had been swayed by the will of the masses. Instead of jacking up the fare by a quarter, the mayor’s office decided to put a measure before the Board of Supervisors proposing the elimination of transfers.

Everywhere a Small Party
At this point we drafted and began putting up copies of an 11" x 17" wall poster, Refuse To Pay, aimed at MUNI riders, encouraging mass collective fare shirking.

On one or two occasions we had enough people to form two separate wall-postering squads. More often than not we only had enough people to form one postering group. Three or four of us would get together after sundown at a punk rock record store in San Francisco’s Mission District. We’d mix a one pound bag of wallpaper paste into a one gallon bucket of lukewarm water, then go out postering, slapping wallpaper paste on inviting surfaces like traffic signal boxes with a large paint brush. The person carrying the bucket did the brush work, (and ended up wearing a lot of wallpaper paste); the person carrying the posters would pass a poster to the third member of the group, who’d slap the poster into place.

Before going out at night we’d scam 100 to 150 photocopies of our posters from a copy store that has delightfully lax security. We went out two or three nights a week for six to eight weeks. We covered streetlight poles, ground level billboards and other spots near bus stops along busy streets in central working class neighborhoods: in the Mission District, the Western Addition and Fillmore, the Tenderloin, areas around BART stations, around City College and SF State University. To a more limited degree we also covered the foot of Market Street in the Financial District. The day after postering one of us would usually check to see if the posters were still up, or if they had been trashed by law-abiding shitheads. Except for some reactionary working class alcoholics at McCarthy’s bar on Mission Street no one messed with the posters. After foggy nights the posters would still be damp at dawn. But once they had dried they clung as if welded into place. After several months the posters attained a high degree of visibility along key bus routes in the city, which was gratifying, since this part of our efforts in particular had been bust-ass hard work.

Pay No Attention to that Man behind the Curtain...
After the Public Utilities Commission and the Board of Supervisors approved the elimination of transfers, the mayors’ office pushed back the date for the elimination of transfers several times, finally deciding that October 1 would be D-day for their attack on MUNI riders.

At the public meeting at Mission High that March, one of us had picked up a copy of a letter from the mayor which thanked attendees for coming, piously reminded citizens that we must all make sacrifices, etc. Using this as a style model, we drafted a fake letter from San Francisco Mayor Jordan.

Our version of Jordan’s letter graciously included official-looking fake MUNI transfers, and for that extra added touch of realism we stamped a meaningless sequence of numbers at the bottom of each transfer, and cut the spaces between the transfers to make them easy to tear off. We photocopied about 600 of our letter from the mayor, and bought a couple of tape guns at an office supply store.

We wanted to spread as much confusion as possible in the Financial District, so beginning at around 3 on the afternoon of Oct. 1, we started at the foot of Market Street (the main street in that part of town).

We worked our way up the street, tape-gunning multiple leaflets next to one another on "bum-proof" MUNI bus stops, the leaflets forming a belt around the insides and outsides of the glass walls of the stops.

Since the elimination of transfers was the big news that day we attracted a lot of attention. To questions from curious passersby, we replied that we were sent by Mayor Jordan’s office, and we sang praises to his generosity and concern for the difficulties faced by MUNI riders on the first day of the elimination of transfers. People quickly took the transfers.

A bus driver pulled alongside of us as we covered a bus stop, jumped out of the bus and yelled, "I’ll give em to riders! Give me some!" The fake transfers disappeared fast. We did a MUNI stop on Kearny near Market, then quickly moved on, and looking back from a block away we saw the sidewalk completely blocked by people, mobbing the bus stop for transfers.

At around 6 p.m., we were down to our last leaflet, so we tore off three transfers for our own ride back to the Mission District. All around the downtown area, bus stops were still covered by leaflets stripped of fake transfers, and people were reading the letter from Jordan. We went to the MUNI underground at Montgomery and tried them on the man in the booth. He was a supervisor. He refused to take them. We hiked up Market to Powell Street. Again, we found supervisors staffing the booth instead of the usual rank-and-file MUNI workers. The supervisor in the booth was pissed off. He said: "No way! You guys know you didn’t pay for those things! Those are some kind of practical joke!"

The mayor’s office had to issue a statement at 5 p.m. that day denying responsibility for the letter and the fake transfers.

This prank concluded our fall ‘93 MUNI campaign.

The elimination of transfers proved to be so unworkable that transfers were reinstated after six months, and as of this date, late 2000, there has still been no fare increase on MUNI.

To the best of our knowledge there was no mass self-reduction movement in response to the abolition of transfers. We heard many stories of drivers letting riders board for free, but this happens a lot of the time, anyway. We didn’t think that a self-reduction movement would come into existence in response to our actions. We hope actions like these will contribute to an awareness among exploited and dispossessed people that our needs and the demands of the capitalist economy, (the market system, wage slavery, the world of money, buying and selling, the bosses and parasites who profit from it) are mutually and violently exclusive. Mass, collective action must be taken on this basis.

"Our Society is Insane..."
One evening in 1994, one of us boarded a Bay Area Rapid Transit train in San Francisco and saw a new type of anti-fare evasion poster, unlike others he’d seen before. This poster trumpeted the message "FARE IS FAIR" in large grimly totalitarian block letters, above a more polite and lengthy request to "Play Fair--Pay Your Fare."

Over the course of the next few days we saw these posters and other posters with variations on the same stupid theme on subway cars throughout the BART system. Using their contrasting good cop/bad cop character fonts as our inspiration, we designed a more clearly worded version of the message in the anti-fare evasion poster.

Our sticker aped the contrasting fonts of the anti-fare evasion poster, and borrowed its slogan from an advertising campaign of the Argentine military dictatorships’ Dirty War of the 1970s. On the bottom of the anti-fare evasion poster, a message exhorting riders to report fare evaders to the nearest station agent had been taped over to correct an earlier message asking riders to call BART police directly, giving the BART pigs’ phone number. We included their phone number on our stickers.

We had a print shop make about 1,300 stickers. Friends would slap up a few stickers going to and from work on BART.

One morning after rush hour, and well before the afternoon rush, a small number of people took a large number of stickers and spent several hours altering a large number of posters.

Later that same day an irate BART rider called the phone number on the sticker, 1- (510) 464-7000:

(Bart cop answering phone): "Bart police."

Irate rider: "What’s this about you jacking up the fares by 50 percent!?"

Bart cop: "What are you talking about?"

Irate rider: "You got stickers up all over the trains sayin’ you’re gonna jack up fares by 50 percent!"

Bart cop (now pissed off): "This is the Bart police emergency line, do you have an emergency?!"

Irate rider: "Yeah! You’re jacking up the fares by 50 percent, I’d say that constitutes an emergency!"

If they were caught before the adhesive dried, the stickers could be peeled off. But after 30 minutes or so the stickers clung fast, and couldn’t be pulled off without trashing the anti-fare evasion posters.

After about two months we had added our stickers to almost every one of the anti-fare evasion posters. At that point BART management apparently gave up trying to replace them.

BART management also had anti-fare evasion stickers placed on top of the gates into and out of the paying areas of the system. These stickers were about the same size and had a similar appearance to our stickers, and had served as something of a style model for us. We put some stickers over these, though our efforts at this were more haphazard than what we did to the posters on the train cars. When our stickers were removed they tended to remove the underlying anti-fare evasion stickers, too.

No BART fare increase was known to be in the works when we made our stickers. To highlight the ridiculous qualities of BART management’s anti-fare evasion propaganda we wildly overestimated the likely size of a BART fare increase, pulling the 50% figure out of a hat. But at the beginning of 1995 BART management decided to go for a 45% fare hike over the course of the next three years. Did they get the idea from us, or what?! The absurdities of contemporary capitalist austerity and repression are so pronounced that they tend to escape our ability to lampoon them.

Black Bart Rides Again
Late in 1994, it looked like a strike by BART workers might take place. We drafted a leaflet, BART ATTACK #2, the first version having been distributed to BART workers under similar circumstances in the summer of ‘91.

We distributed the latest version to train operators in our usual manner. We had two groups of people at each end of the platform of the MacArthur BART Station in Oakland. All the trains in the system go through this station, and in a few hours we were able to get leaflets to all the train operators working one afternoon commute period. The leaflet went through a series of revisions as we got more information and as events unfolded. We also went from station to station giving leaflets to station agents. The leaflet was well received by train operators and somewhat less well received by station agents.

We knew from our previous efforts that MUNI workers in SF were hopping mad at management, so we rode MUNI busses, talking to drivers to get information for a revised version of the leaflet. We suggested that they could use a BART strike as an opportunity to stage a wildcat walkout around their own demands and grievances and in support of BART strikers. In the course of our conversations, and in talking to people we know who work for BART, we found out that MUNI management, with the cooperation of the union representing MUNI drivers, was planning to run "Special BART Express" busses on Market and Mission Streets. In other words, MUNI drivers who were members of TWU 250A would scab on BART employees, many of them members of a different local of the same union, and help break their strike. So we distributed a revised leaflet to MUNI bus and streetcar operators and made an issue of the plans for scabbing.

As always, we used this opportunity to attack the unions as capitalist business organizations. The function of the unions is to keep the working class in line. Wage workers need to form their own autonomous organizations outside of and totally hostile to capital’s labor brokerage outfits.

A sympathetic BART employee told us that word had gotten back to BART workers that the union representing MUNI drivers had been told by drivers that they would refuse to go along with plans to scab on a BART strike. He credited our actions with having brought it about. We were happy to hear that at least one aspect of our efforts had shown results.

Several of us rode BART trains before the morning commute hour a few days in advance of the possible strike and taped our (8.5" x 11") BART FLU flyer over ads on the trains. We wanted to encourage a widening of a BART strike into a wildcat walkout by thousands of atomized wage-slaves.

Before the strike the unions representing BART workers, SEIU, Local 790 and Amalgamated Transit Workers Union, Local 1555* issued a "BART rider bulletin", offering commuter tips on how to undercut the effectiveness of a walkout by BART employees. This was a clear demonstration of the unions’ loyalty to whatever the bosses wanted and their antagonism to the interests of union members. Ultimately the unions’ devious and chickenshit maneuvers resulted in acceptance of a lousy give-back contract by BART workers. At that time as well, a number of combative workers were forced out of low-level positions in the union apparatus. Many BART workers were pissed off at the give-back contract. Unfortunately no wildcat actions took place.

A few months after BART management’s successful attack on BART employees it became evident that a major BART fare increase was in the works. We used information about the raw deal that management and their union waterboys had run on BART employees in our Bart Crimes leaflet.

*FOOTNOTE: At the time of these events, ATU, Local 1555 represented around 660 train operators, station agents, foreworkers, clerks, communications specialists and power support people. SEIU, Local 790 represented approximately 1,500 maintenance and clerical workers.

To The Richmond Station
Our Bart Crimes leaflet mimicked the name and appearance of a moronic newsletter titled BART Times that management distributed from plastic slots on fare gates in stations. We began by leafleting the last two of a series of public meetings held by BART bureaucrats in San Francisco’s Chinatown and at BART headquarters near Lake Merritt in Oakland. The meeting in Chinatown was a joke; attended by three bureaucrats and two riders. At BART headquarters about 60 irate BART riders and a half dozen BART functionaries showed up. It was entertaining to see the BART bureaucrats, seated in front of their audience, looking over the leaflet and furtively whispering to each other.

After that we found a source of unlimited free photocopying and leafleted riders during the afternoon commute period at stations in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland and Richmond. We did this two or three days a week for three weeks prior to the April Fools’ Day beginning of the fare hike. We also went on empty trains before the morning commute period, from 5:45 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., moving from car to car leaving leaflets on the seats.

One morning while leafleting empty train cars we ran into a BART janitor, holding a large transparent garbage bag filled with our leaflets. This unpleasant sight prompted us to leaflet trains during the main period of the morning commute, moving from car to car giving leaflets directly to passengers. Our unexpected activity on the trains seemed to interrupt the stupefaction of the morning commute. Between surfing the trains at dawn and leafleting afternoon commuters exiting stations, by Friday, March 31, we had distributed around 20,000 leaflets. This was our first experience in industrial-strength leafleting. Friendly BART employees faxed the leaflets around the BART system to other BART workers.

In the final week of March we photocopied a wallposter-sized version of the leaflet and wallpaper-pasted these up around a number of stations. A friend helped draft a press release. This was faxed to a number of the local bourgeois news media outlets, and resulted in front page coverage in the Oakland Tribune on Friday, March 31, the day before the fare hike went into effect.

We distributed our leaflet to BART station agents. And we distributed various forms of pro-fare evasion literature around the BART system. The BART fare hike has been implemented, but the fight continues.

All the wealth that exists in modern society has been created by the interaction of working people’s labor power and the natural world. We are separated from the products of our activity by a global market system that is as antagonistic to real life as the lethal technologies and environmental pollutants it produces. Our anti-capitalist actions have tried to make a connection between contemporary struggles of the working class under capitalism and the revolutionary social organization of the future, where all wealth will be shared freely, a world without buying and selling of any kind. We’ve aimed at overcoming divisions of exploited people into wage workers and non wage-earning, the badly paid and the slightly less badly paid, unionized and non-unionized.

We’ve tried to make it clear that the degree to which market relations dominate daily life is the degree to which life is oppressive and degrading. When we resist the market economy we live better.

Today the capitalist system works to get everyone, no matter how impoverished and fucked over, to internalize the mindset of the entrepreneur and the cop. But contemporary capitalist strategies for increased repression and social control can be subverted by a mass refusal to cooperate on the part of wage workers and the poor. Employees of mass transit systems are in a crucial position in this regard; their potential power is greater than that of other wage workers. No matter how sophisticated the technology, the human element can sabotage and subvert the machine.

To play by the system’s rules is a guarantee that we will lose. Notions like fair play, appeals to justice and democratic rights, leaving it up to the union apparatus and assuming that the law is there to help are false notions, ideological obstacles to the emergence of class consciousness and class action. "Cheating" on subway fares and "stealing" from the system that exploits us and degrades the world is an affirmative act.

Perhaps most important of all, we’ve used what Corporate America and its media apparatus present as a small, mundane inconvenience as an opportunity to broadcast an anti-capitalist perspective to many tens of thousands of working class and poor people who otherwise wouldn’t hear it.

Revolutionaries "disdain to conceal their aims." We’ve tried to keep our language plain and clear. And we haven’t soft-peddled our message. We’ve been completely upfront about our hatred of wage slavery and the market economy, our hatred for bosses and managers, the unions and the cops, the government and the law. Small, everyday acts of resistance can contribute to the rise of tomorrow’s’ mass anti-market movement.

And in South Africa: "Riding public trains for free and refusing to pay rent...were once seen as legitimate protests [against] apartheid.

"Now the ‘culture of non-payment’ has become ingrained among the impoverished black majority, despite attempts to erase it by the black-led government that took over in historic all-race elections in 1994."

USA Today, August 1, 1996