Tag Archives: negotiation

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.

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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 Philly.com.  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.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, Labor

Bernie Sanders Knows What He’s Doing and Is Doing It Quite Well

According to Politico, House Democrats booed Bernie Sanders during a closed-door meeting on Wednesday, July 6.  They would like him to officially end his presidential campaign and were frustrated that, in response to calls to endorse Hillary Clinton, he stated that his goal “is to transform America,” not just “to win elections.”  This reaction was unsurprising; as Politico noted, “House Democrats overwhelmingly supported Hillary Clinton during the presidential primary fight,” and the idea that winning elections might be a means rather than an end “plays better on the campaign trail than in front of a roomful of elected officials.”  Even one of Sanders’ few congressional supporters during the primary, Raul Grijalva, has argued that a Sanders endorsement of Clinton has “got to happen prior to the [Democratic] convention.”

What doesn’t make any sense at all, however, is the argument many of Sanders’ detractors have been advancing for quite some time about why they think he should drop out.  The idea that “he’s squandering the movement he built” by withholding his endorsement (advanced by a “senior Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity”) is obviously incorrect, but has been repeated over and over again by numerous journalists and pundits, including:

  • Gabriel Debenedetti and Sahil Kapur, who penned pieces entitled “Sanders loses convention leverage” (for Politico) and “Sanders’ Long Refusal to Endorse Clinton Hurts His Leverage” (for Bloomberg), respectively, on June 17;
  • Joan Walsh, who argued in The Nation on June 27 that “Sanders may…be setting himself up for less influence in Philadelphia, rather than more;”
  • Jamelle Bouie, who contended in Slate on June 28 that “the leverage [Sanders] held at the end of the primary just isn’t there anymore;”
  • Stuart Rothenberg, who wrote in The Washington Post on June 30 that “Sanders is not yet irrelevant[, but] he reached a point weeks ago when his stubbornness became counterproductive;” and
  • Joshua Green, who asserted in Bloomberg on July 7 that “Sanders increasingly looks like an afterthought who’s squandering an historic opportunity.”

Their arguments boil down to the following: The more Sanders waits to endorse Clinton, the more he alienates her team, encouraging them to ignore parts of his platform that they’d be otherwise inclined to support and to rely on other politicians, like Elizabeth Warren, for progressive credibility.  Sanders’ “first and most prominent supporters have jumped off the bandwagon, congratulating and in some cases endorsing Clinton,” Debenedetti notes, and Bouie adds that Sanders has lost his chance to “claim credit” for the “natural movement to Clinton among Democratic primary voters” that has already begun to take place.  Bouie believes Sanders could have taken “a starring role in the campaign against Trump,” opening “the doors to lasting influence,” but in the words of Rothenberg, “Clinton doesn’t need Sanders anymore.” If “Sanders delivers a late or halfhearted endorsement,” Walsh argues, Clinton may even turn to Republicans for votes.

Yet these claims are belied by recent events.  As Jeff Stein observed in Vox, the draft Democratic party platform, released in full on Friday, July 1, “shows Sanders winning on at least six signature issues that reflect long-held goals of his movement…on top of victories Sanders [had] already won over the platform.”  Bouie is right to point out that “Team Sanders…lost out” in platform discussions about “more contentious” issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and environmental regulation, and Green isn’t far off when he says the platform is “a purely symbolic document,” but it’s also undoubtedly the case, as Stein notes, that the party is still “moving [Sanders’] way on several key issues.”  Though Politico’s unnamed senior Democrat and Green ignored it, Clinton also just announced a new plan to make college free for families making under $125,000 a year, a proposal that isn’t quite as good as Sanders’ but represents a striking reversal from her earlier campaign rhetoric.

The reason for these concessions is simple: Clinton wants Sanders’ endorsement.  Yes, some Sanders supporters already seem poised to vote for Clinton, but even they often have negative perceptions of her and are unlikely to volunteer and/or donate in the same way they would have if Sanders was the nominee.  Clinton knows that generating the enthusiasm and votes necessary to beat Donald Trump in November would be easier with Sanders on board and the possibility that he won’t be is the best bargaining chip Sanders has got.

If winning more concessions from Clinton is a key objective for Sanders, he’d be crazy to give that chip up prematurely.  It’s hard to believe that Sanders would have secured the gains he already has if he had followed the pundits’ advice and tried to ingratiate himself to Clinton.

At the same time, winning concessions from Clinton is not Sanders’ – or Grijalva’s, or many other Sanders supporters’ – only or even primary goal.  Sanders has explicitly prioritized making “certain that Donald Trump is defeated and defeated badly,” as Bouie pointed out, and Sanders has both said that he will vote for Clinton in November and suggested that an endorsement may be imminent.  That position isn’t unreasonable; though the differences between Trump and Clinton are often overstated, Clinton is undoubtedly the lesser evil facing those who believe in power-balancing policy.  But it also deprives Sanders and his voters of a whole lot of bargaining power.

In fact, Clinton can court a growing list of Republicans not because of the delayed endorsement by Sanders that Walsh has feared, but for precisely the opposite reason: as one Republican strategist has explained, many Sanders supporters “have already shown, by and large, that they’ll fall in line and back” Clinton despite policy positions they dislike.  The loss of bargaining power that pledging to vote for Clinton entails is also apparent in pressure from Wall Street about Clinton’s choice of a running mate: “moderate Democrats in the financial services industry argue that Sanders voters will come on board anyway and that Clinton does not need to pick [Elizabeth] Warren to help her win.”  A commitment to lesser-of-evilsism is indisputably accompanied by a loss of leverage in situations in which you and the candidate you’re backing disagree.

Some Sanders supporters have already decided that a united front against Trump is more important than that leverage.  Others believe that fixing a Democratic party that is seriously broken is a more pressing concern and that the concessions Sanders has won, while not meaningless, are very different than binding commitments Clinton would be likely to adhere to if elected; we wish Sanders had maximized his leverage by seriously entertaining a third-party run.  Sanders, on the other hand, has been attempting to balance his attention to both goals, to influence the Democratic party platform as much as possible without materially affecting the Democrats’ chances in the fall.

It’s perfectly fine to disagree with his relative weighting of priorities.  But let’s stop pretending that he’s making a strategic blunder.  Sanders knows exactly what he’s doing, and despite assertions to the contrary from media and “top Democrats,” he has actually done it quite well.

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Filed under 2016 Presidential Election, US Political System