Striking SEPTA Workers Deserve Public Support

On Friday, a judge denied an injunction request from Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) management, who wanted striking SEPTA workers, represented by Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 234, to be forced to go back to work.  The judge made the right decision.  At a follow-up hearing on Monday at 9:30 AM, the judge should stand firm, as TWU Local 234 has every right to strike and is justified in doing so.

The union, which represents a group of bus drivers, trolley operators, mechanics, and other transit workers whose base salaries seem to max out around $70,000 a year, has been trying to negotiate a new contract with SEPTA for months.  The union was unhappy with a potential increase in their health care premium contributions – from about $550 annually to a little less than $4,800 annually – that would have coincided with some increased co-pays.  They’ve also been bargaining to improve their pensions, which have long been less generous than both the typical public pension and the pensions SEPTA managers receive.


Perhaps most importantly, the union has asked for scheduling changes that would improve safety for workers and customers alike.  Bus operators can currently be required to work 16 hours in a day or 30 hours in back-to-back days and may only get 15-minute lunch breaks.  They have inadequate opportunities to go to the bathroom and can’t sleep on-site in between their unpaid breaks, which creates a major problem for drivers with commutes.  SEPTA management has thus far insisted that their scheduling practices are necessary for “flexibility” purposes, despite the fact that research on sleep and crash statistics recommend against them.

So while SEPTA management may have reduced the magnitude of their proposed hike to health care premiums and offered some salary increases since the strike began, those who believe in worker rights, economic justice, and public safety should be firmly in the union’s camp when it comes to negotiations.

Some Democrats seem to have sided instead with SEPTA management, which has “argued the strike was keeping children from school, making travel around the city difficult for people with disabilities and those in need of medical treatment, and threatening to disenfranchise voters in Tuesday’s presidential election,” as reported by  Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who appears particularly worried that the strike will depress voter turnout on Tuesday and be “a real plus for Donald Trump,” has even argued that the state legislature should take away SEPTA workers’ right to strike in the future.

The problem with this formulation, however, is that it ignores both the power differential between labor and management and which of those two entities is more likely to be on the public’s side.  Union members risk a lot when they go on strike – their jobs and their pay are on the line.  They don’t decide to strike lightly, and TWU Local 234 made this decision because, as their president Willie Brown has said, “It’s the only tool [they] have available to [them].”  Binding arbitration (when both parties to a negotiation submit their offers to a neutral third party who makes a final decision on which offer to go with) can be an effective alternative to strikes for public sector employees, but while Brown “said he would be willing to go to binding arbitration to avoid a strike[,] SEPTA officials said…that wasn’t an option they were willing to consider.”

Note also that, for all the hand-wringing about union members supposedly not caring about the election, many of its members plan to volunteer to help get out the vote on election day (for the record, TWU Local 234 has also endorsed Hillary Clinton).  SEPTA Board chairman Pasquale Deon, on the other hand, has contributed thousands of dollars to Republican Senator Pat Toomey, whose record includes strong support of the Pennsylvania voter ID law that was struck down as unconstitutional in 2014.  Deon also donated to two Republican presidential candidates – Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – whose careers are characterized as much by defunding poor kids’ schools, denying people access to the medical care they need, and constructing obstacles to voting as they are by virulent anti-union crusades.

To summarize: Pasquale and the rest of SEPTA management chose not to engage in good-faith negotiations.  They chose not to go to binding arbitration.  And their rhetoric is belied by the other causes they support.  Yes, having public transportation up and running on election day would be ideal, but those worried about whether that will happen should be applying pressure to Pasquale and his friends, not complaining about bus drivers’ efforts to secure affordable health care, improvements in their retirement security, breaks long enough to catch some sleep in between shifts, and enough time to use the bathroom during the workday.

The outcome of Monday’s hearing is ultimately unlikely to matter much in Tuesday’s election.  Philadelphia policy “prioritizes spots [for polling places] within walking distance of people’s houses,” as The New Republic noted in 2008, and officials overseeing Philadelphia’s elections have pointed out that a 2009 strike did not depress turnout in that year’s local election.  Lyft and Uber are offering free rides to the polls that day, there are services connecting volunteer drivers to people who need rides, and the governor always has the option to extend voting hours if a lack of public transportation turns out to be a major voting obstacle.

What Monday’s hearing will impact, however, is TWU Local 234’s bargaining power.  More generally, people’s attitudes about the strike will impact the future of organized labor, an institution that raises wages for members and non-members alike, boosts opportunities for kids, and advocates broadly for the interests of low- and middle-income people.

The ethics are on the union’s side.  The public should be, too.

Update (11/7/16): SEPTA and TWU Local 234 reached a deal before the follow-up injunction hearing and the union will be back at work during the election.


Filed under 2016 Election, Labor

5 responses to “Striking SEPTA Workers Deserve Public Support

  1. tayo13

    Thanks for this informative article. I must say, I am very worried about evening voting. It takes some people two hours to get home from work because of traffic and other delays during this strike. If there is a critical mass of people who arrive at their polling place between 7:30 – 8:00pm, this will be a major problem since the polls close at nine. Even if the polls stay open later, and let’s face it, they are going to have to do just that, weary workers–some coming off of lengthy shifts–may be too tired to wait in line until 11:00pm or later. This is a mess. I think more people would support the workers if they went back to work for just Election Day and resumed their strike on the ninth. More is at stake than the rights and needs of this one public sector union.

    • You’re welcome, and thanks for the comments! I get where you’re coming from, but I’d just reiterate that 1) what we know suggests that there aren’t many people who might actually be discouraged from voting as a result of the strike and 2) that I agree that a lot more is at stake than the “needs of this one public sector union,” but what I’m worried about is the future of the labor movement. Supporting undercutting unions’ leverage whenever a service disruption has potentially important consequences helps to broadly undermine the fight for worker rights, and I think it’s essential that, to the extent people are concerned about election day, they direct their anger and arguments towards SEPTA management, which has brought this situation about, and not the union.

  2. Daniel Vaughan

    Pat Deon was instrumental in the whole Hyundai rotem silverliner 5 debacle. He was also a huge part in the delay of the septa key program. The silverliner trains arrived 3 years late and the key program isn’t fully functional yet. Septa actually residential the trains to ensure that Hyundai got the contract. The same guy who put regional rail riders at risk with his choice of manufacturer for the trains is also putting bus riders at risk by not giving appropriate recovery times for operators.

  3. The article says:

    Philadelphia policy “prioritizes spots [for polling places] within walking distance of people’s houses,”

    Yes, but do you think policy has perfectly translated into the real world? It is policy of police departments not to shoot unarmed, innocent people. I’ve done GOTV and heard from people who worry about being able to get to the polls because they don’t have transit options.

    The response to tayo13 worries me because point number one indicates that you aren’t worried if only a few people are effectively disenfranchised. Even a small number of people not getting to the polls because of a lack of transit options should be distressing to everyone, including organized labor.

    And yes, it’s great what Uber and Lyft are doing, but do you think all low-income voters have Uber and Lyft, will hear about the offer, and try it out? Hopefully many will, but definitely not all. Also, should we be relying on the charity of corporations to see that people can affordably get to the polls?

    From my personal experience, FWIW, I’ve seen my labor union put self-interest for a few ahead of what is good for workers. I love the idea of labor unions and using worker solidarity to fight for the concerns of labor, butI dropped out of my labor union because of what a terrible job my local was doing. I don’t inherently trust that organized labor is doing the right thing at all times.

    • You make some points that are fair, namely:

      1) It’s a problem if anyone is disenfranchised.
      2) It’s fair to point out that there are situations in which a labor union may not be doing the right thing.

      That said, (1) is not a problem that the strike is causing. If we had better voting laws in this country, it wouldn’t be an issue at all. Fortunately, the governor can extend voting hours if disenfranchisement is a concern for people. I’m fully in support of him doing that.

      On (2), I’d posit that there are very few if any institutions that always do the right thing, and there are certainly situations in which I think certain unions are wrong. In general, though, labor unions have been very important in the fight for social justice.

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