So, like my occasional flare-ups of hemorrhoids, I see the Transport Workers of America Local 234 has reared its ugly butt once again. Anyone who lives in Philadelphia for a given length of time will eventually encounter the major inconvenience of a transit strike. These things happen with regular frequency, like the Olympics. It disrupts the city, throws hundreds of thousands of commuters into chaos, and it’s accepted as a fact of life. In fact, TWU234 is the most strikiest union there is in Philadelphia.
Who could forget the transit strike of 2009, when TWU234 president Willie Brown authorized a strike to keep transit worker healthcare contributions locked-in at 1 percent? Like the current threat Willie Brown is making, TWU made its walk-out threat right as its contract with SEPTA approached expiration, then later walked out.
Then there was the Great SEPTA Strike of 2005 when none of the City Transit Division workers at SEPTA were paying anything towards their healthcare premiums and SEPTA was asking for 5 percent contributions. While lasting only 7 days, it hit in November during crappy weather. The “1 percent” contract was later signed ending the strike. Obviously TWU would prefer workers contribute little to nothing and won’t give an inch on a worker benefit that almost everyone else in the universe contributes more out of their pay packets toward. TWU workers don’t pay nearly the kind of premiums that you’d find at Healthcare.gov.
During the 2005 strike, then-governor Ed Rendell weighed in and said the TWU strike was putting dedicated state funding for SEPTA at risk. Most people poo-poo’d or ignored his statements at the time, but last year when the PA House of Representatives was wringing its hands over raising the state gas tax cap to help fund transportation in the Commonwealth, the words from Tea Party people living in the state's "T" couldn’t have been more clearer: fuck SEPTA. State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Butler County said it plainly: SEPTA is "just [more] welfare."
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, low-wage workers pay premiums that can be as high as 39 percent of workers' gross salaries. TWU234 would be happy to see you walk miles in the snow forever if it meant a 5 percent or even a 3.5 percent contribution to worker pay.
Do you think TWU234 cares what happens when they walk off the job? The SEPTA railroad division union walked off the job and all the other SEPTA unions joined in sympathy in a 108-day strike in 1983. It took a full decade for ridership to fully recover.
This is the funnier bit: TWU234 would like the public to believe that SEPTA is some evil megacorporation with a tycoon in a top office of 1234 Market stroking a white cat. SEPTA is a state-chartered agency that was engineered in the 1960s to absorb all of the failed private rail transportation companies that used to exist around Philadelphia. While SEPTA collects a lot more in fares than most other transit systems in the United States, SEPTA gets about 40 percent of its funding for operating expenses from the fare box. The rest of it comes from Harrisburg and from federal transportation grants and programs.
During the 2005 strike and certainly during the 2009 strike you could hear a pin-drop from the commuting public when looking for sympathy and solidarity with strikers. Nobody believed the TWU bullshit from the last two strikes, so what makes Willie Brown think there will be any public sympathy this time around?
Everyone who lives and pays taxes in PA pays for SEPTA. SEPTA riders pay even more. For some smaller items, every taxpayer in America contributes to SEPTA in their own little way.
And it is no coinkidink after legislators worked very hard to get the transportation funding bill passed in Harrisburg last year over screams and howls from the Tea Party Republicans, that TWU234 smells blood in the water and is getting the picket signs ready in hopes a good chunk of the extra transit funding SEPTA is poised to get will be sucked away into benefits and little of what’s left will go to any of the major infrastructure improvements SEPTA needs to carry out. As long as Willie Brown runs TWU234, expect a transit strike after every union contract expiration.
In fact, SEPTA should just post its union contract expiration dates on all SEPTA schedules so riders know way ahead of time when transit probably won’t be available.
Christopher Sawyer is the foul-mouthed anti-blight blogger at philadelinquency.com, an avid (and sometimes livid) SEPTA customer and Transpass holder.