How Dare You, Transit Striker!

Hey, did you hear about the World Series fans that were nearly stranded in South Philadelphia due to a transit shutdown? Unless you knew better, you’d quickly gather, from the print and electronic coverage of the Philadelphia transportation workers strike, as well as the negotiations leading up to it, that Transit Workers (TWU) Local 234 and its president, Willie Brown, were greedy, arrogant thugs, delighted to inconvenience a helpless public so as to be able to award themselves bigger pensions and fatter paychecks at a time when the rest of the city’s citizens are unemployed or working like hell to keep the jobs they have.

Media coverage of striking workers is almost never sympathetic. In this case, though, the union-bashing—opinion masquerading as reportage—serves a double purpose. The point in Philadelphia is to whip up a backlash against the TWU that will translate into the kind of overwhelming public pressure that forces the union leadership into accepting an agreement that is less than satisfactory to its members.

SETTLEMENT REACHED

The six-day transit walk-out in Philadelphia ended Tuesday with an announcement of a five-year contract deal that would increase workers' pension contributions from 2 percent to 3 percent and lift the maximum pension from $27,000 to $30,000. Watch for more details in the next issue of Labor Notes. (Don't receive the magazine? Subscribe today and get the full story.)

That secured, the agreement becomes a club with which to pound other public unions into submission.
Like many big cities, in Philadelphia contracts with public workers follow a pattern, and if the city’s leaders can push a weaker deal onto cowed transit workers, they’ll expect the same from AFSCME members and other city employees.

The pressure on the union is relentless. The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, describes Brown as “pugnacious,” and someone “with a temper.” The same article notes his resemblance to a bullet, “round on top and thick through the middle.” Couple that with TV news reporters’ daily descriptions of inconvenienced commuters “enduring” the strike, and you’ve got quite a propaganda campaign. Stories on striking drivers or mechanics, their struggles to endure? Forget about it.

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Driving public transit vehicles is a high-stress job for, at best, an adequate wage. But no one—not the public, the union leadership or rank-and-file members—wants a transit strike. Working people’s lives are thrown into disarray, and drivers and mechanics go without a paycheck. Typically, the media hype the “11 percent” wage increase demanded by TWU, only later qualifying that that increase is spread out over a five-year contract with no one annual increase exceeding the 2008 inflation rate of 3.8 percent.

SEPTA, the Philadelphia transit authority, has a practice of underfunding the union’s pension—the chief point of dispute. SEPTA released numbers yesterday showing that the transit workers’ pension fund is only 53 percent funded, while the managers’ fund stands at 65 percent of obligations. Neither has ever been fully funded, but managers historically have enjoyed a substantially healthier fund.

Enter two would-be saviors in the form of Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, Democrats who share the Republican belief that public interest is defined by what’s good for corporations. They have interceded in negotiations while issuing periodic swipes at the TWU leadership. No one with either a memory or the slightest political savvy would mistake these two as friends of labor. Rendell, as mayor, built his political career on the backs of Philadelphia’s unionized city employees, whom he repeatedly vilified as solely responsible for the city’s fiscal woes.

As for Nutter, elected almost completely without labor support, there’s more in this for him than satisfying an irresistible temptation to grandstand. TWU has been without a contract since March. And if at this point the transit union can be bullied into accepting a contract its members aren’t satisfied with, that’s very much in the mayor’s interest. Philadelphia city workers have been without a contract since June, and when they do come to the table the pressure to settle, for less, probably much less, will be that much greater.


Thomas Paine Cronin is the retired president of AFSCME District Council 47 in Philadelphia..