Interview with an Unlikely Transit Justice Ally: Roger Marenco

by Zach

Throughout the years of work I put into my lawsuit against the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA), my most unlikely ally was Roger Marenco—a man who was brave enough to look beyond his immediate needs, to see the struggle of the vulnerable and disenfranchised. While currently on the outs with the Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 250A, the union he was elected president of from 2018 to 2022, he talks now of starting his own union, and has other plans for making an impact in the future of local politics.

I asked Roger what he thought of my recent court settlement with the City and SFMTA.

“It was a great victory, but there are many more victories in front. That’s just one victory out of many,” he said.

I recently  had the privilege to sit down with Roger  to chat about the recent victory and all things San Francisco public transit. It was a sunny Saturday when we met up for a burger in the Mission—predictably interrupted by friendly faces passing through who know and love Roger. He seemed at home in this environment, waving to buses at the intersection, a show of solidarity with the rank and file. During the entire interview, music blared from the speakers across the outdoor patio hutch we dined in. I thought about how so much noise must be like background air conditioners to the many bus operators that work for years weaving those giant metallic caterpillars through busy city traffic to help us reach our destinations.

The following interview was edited for clarity and context.

Z: [Speaking on the lawsuit outcome] “SFMTA, they had their own solution originally – or at least during that time period – called The Secret Rider Program…a program where SFMTA would hire undercover agents to monitor bus operators, to try to catch them in the act of alleged wrongdoing. 

R: I don’t know if that’s what it’s called, but at this moment, the training department does indeed board the buses in plain clothes, no uniform. And they monitor the operator. So, it’s happening at this moment.

And..What are your feelings about that?

It’s a mixed bag of feelings, I completely understand they have a job to do, the trainers, the supervisors. I totally understand that. Unfortunately I feel the way they are approaching that is more of a punishing mentality, meaning, “Aha! I gotchu! You did x, y, and z.” If you ride any bus, any line, any day, every single transit operator in the City and County of San Francisco is committing some type of a violation. Whether they are not wearing safety shoes, whether they are running 26 miles an hour as opposed to 25, whether they ran the stop sign at 1 mile an hour. Whether they had to leave some passengers behind, for whatever reason. Whether they forgot to use their safety vest. Every single transit operator…is committing some type of violation every single day. That is a fact. It is a fact….

So if you want to discipline someone, you’re going to discipline everybody. But if you want to encourage someone to do better, then I would recommend incentivizing them to achieve the goal of being an expert operator… I like to think and hope that incentivizing and rewarding people for doing good things is a more positive outcome. ‘Cause it creates a better worker.

…I found this out during the course of the lawsuit that less than 1% of all the training hours goes towards disability training. What do you think about that?

I think that is one of the many issues or problems… If an operator is only receiving one hour for this type of training per year, maybe it should be one day per year… Maybe they just need more exposure to how and why these problems are just so prevalent and why they need to be addressed. Maybe the operators need more visible, more tangible examples. Meaning, maybe Zach Karnazes could show up to one of the new hire classes or to one of the orientations or to one of the graduations, or to one of these eight-hour classes to explain how and why those problems pertaining to seniors and the disabled are so prevalent, and what can be done to fix it. Because it’s one thing to hear it from a supervisor, and it’s another to hear it from an actual person that suffers these consequences.

I couldn’t have said it better myself…Do you think that disabled people should be given a chance to be part of these trainings…or lead like a class, or a part of a training?

Not only do I fully agree and support that idea of senior citizens and people with mobility issues, people with other special needs should be involved and a part of the training, I would say that the SFMTA, the agency, could and/or should hire these people with special needs so that this could be their job, in terms of providing classes to the operators…

…Because I would not want to teach what it’s like being in a wheelchair. Because that would be hypocritical of me. I would want someone who actually lives it, so they could speak on it from real-life experience.

Beautiful. You had mentioned at one point, If I’m remembering correctly, you spoke publicly at City Hall during the pandemic offering to take a 10% salary cut as the head of Local 250A instead of the proposed austerity measures, if other leaders would join you. Can you say a little something about that?

I made that public declaration when there was a threat of layoffs to the workforce. I said there’s no need for a layoff threat—I will voluntarily reduce my pay at the top—chop from the top if you, other city and elected leaders and department heads, also take a pay cut of ten percent…That was my challenge, which no one took me up on, except Supervisor Aaron Peskin. But he did not take a pay cut—nobody else did, just to make that clear.

I’ll tell you this, it was music to my ears, if nothing else. Just the idea, y’know, that somebody was putting that forward.

Of course we’ve seen a lot of tragic mass shootings happening all over the country, and one of these was actually transit operators in the South Bay, as you know. Obviously this is a different transit agency, but do you have any ideas for what led to this tragedy? And do you have any idea of what could be done to prevent, God forbid, anything like that happening in San Francisco?

I don’t know what the conditions were down in San Jose when this happened but I can tell you what the conditions are up here in San Francisco that might lead an operator to do something like that. The conditions are working under a tremendous amount of stress, working under heavy pressure loads, working under an agency that does not take into account its workforce as humans, as employees, as workers. A lot of the problems that the operators endure come from not being heard, not being listened to, when something bad is happening out there on the road. And supervisors and managers just blow off the operator and say,  “Continue in service, operator. Yeah, I know that [someone] just spit on your face, but it’s okay because…it was just a small amount of spit… So yeah, continue in service. Wash off your face.” These types of things, year after year, decade after decade can cause a huge amount of buildup on the inside of stress, pressure, tension, hypertension, anxiety, depression, etc. and eventually can get to a point where the person explodes. And hopefully that never happens here or anywhere else.

Tell me about your recent victory, your recent contract negotiation in, I think, 2022…?

That’s correct, June 2022.

I think you had mentioned it was one of the highest raises operators had received? What are some things that were accomplished?

I’ve negotiated two contracts [as chief negotiator], and in those two contracts… They are the best contracts that TWU Local 250A has ever experienced; has ever gained… The one in 2022 we obtained the largest wage increase among public sector workers, ever. That was 10% over the next year and a half. I was able to increase the operator awards, and was able to convert them to percentages—which means more money every time that we get a wage increase.

Because it affects inflation?

Correct. I was able to also convert the premium of the uniform allowance.. and pretty much all the premiums we have, I was able to convert it to a percentage, which keeps up with the rate of inflation.

I would see you at meetings and stuff, and I’d be like, here’s this guy Roger Marenco, he’s not disabled…but he’s coming to our meetings? What made him think this was important enough to come to?

What made it important is because at some point in time, I might be there. Or I know some people who are there right now, like my parents who use the bus. Or senior citizens who are disabled. So I would want them to be treated fairly, equally. And sometimes being treated equally means that you need to be treated unequal. Now let me explain what I mean by that: If you’re treating everyone equally and you’re saying, “Hurry up, get on the bus, let’s go, let’s go,” and then you see a wheelchair person, you cannot treat that wheelchair person equally. You cannot tell that person, “hurry up, c’mon, c’mon.” You cannot tell the 90-year-old senior citizen with two bags, “Hurry up, c’mon let’s go.” No, you have to treat them unequally, because you have to give them more time, give them more space. Give them a little more appreciation and respect, knowing that they have a special need that needs to be accommodated… That’s what I mean by treating them unequally…in terms of giving them more.

What is happening right now, I know you were the head of TWU Local 250A here in San Francisco, there have been some changes. What would you say those changes have been?

I had been the president of TWU Local 250A from January 2018 until December 2022. Five years. In those five years I was brought up on more charges than every president in local 250A history combined. I was suspended more than every president in local 250A combined. I was harassed, intimidated, bullied, etc. more than every president combined, because of my ideas. Because I read the rules and the contract, because I understood what needed to be addressed. And because I spoke up and because I spoke out, I was targeted since day one. I was suspended the very first moment that I walked into the office. Every one of my suspensions up until April 2023 have been overturned.

And they’ve been overturned by…?

They have been overturned by the Transport Worker Union committee on appeals on the East Coast…overturned through the appeals process. At this very moment [April 2023] I’ve been suspended for the fifth time. My name has now been removed from the new election which we are going to be having, and I will no longer be running or seeking a term for Local 250A. Local 250A held an election in December 2022 which I filed an appeal against because I said that it was done incorrectly, in violation of our constitution and bylaws, and that it was conducted illegally. Because they committed many violations under the United States Department of Labor laws…that election was overturned by the TWU international appeals committee. So I have many victories under my belt. What I’m being accused of, charged with, at this very moment is more propaganda against me. I decided not to run for office anymore…

I am working on removing my union dues…because I am 100% in support of unions but I am 100% against corruption. And I have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Local 250A was corrupt, is corrupt, will continue to be corrupt… I will not be paying a corrupt organization to be bringing me up on more charges and wasting more of our union members money.

One simple example [of corruption] that I will give, is after five or six decades of Local 250A being in existence, I was handed a budget of $9,400…After less than three years I was able to turn around and provide more than $500,000 in the bank account…That is progress right there. Where did the money go? I have no idea. But that is one of the many things that I want to do in City Hall as well. Find out where the hell the money is going, and reallocate it to these issues that you and I have been talking about.

Do you see a day in the future when there might be a different union, without corruption, as a possibility for San Francisco [bus] operators?

Yes, I do see that as a possibility. Yes.

It was kind of Roger Marenco to offer up so much for this interview. Someone who turns $9,400 into $500,000 without a single penny spent by the workers, simply through smoking out the corruption. It makes me wonder, what this city could be like, and what support services we could have, if all our officials had the tenacity and moral fiber of a Roger Marenco?