Interview: Willie Brown Doesn’t Want a SEPTA Strike — but He’s Ready to Have One Anyway

Think he’s asking for too much for his members? He says he’s willing to organize your union, too.

An employee of Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority raises his fist in the air, Friday, Oct. 28, 2005, while entering a SEPTA bus depot in north Philadelphia. | AP Photo, Joseph Kaczmarek

An employee of Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority raises his fist in the air, Friday, Oct. 28, 2005, while entering a SEPTA bus depot in north Philadelphia. | AP Photo, Joseph Kaczmarek

It’s going to be a scary weekend for commuters in the Philadelphia region: The final contracts between SEPTA and its unions expire at midnight Sunday. The unions haven’t declared they’ll go on strike then — assuming the two sides still can’t settle a contract — but many residents were caught by surprise in 2009 when a SEPTA strike broke out suddenly after the last home game of the Phillies-Yankees World Series that year.

Willie Brown, the high-profile head of TWU 234, SEPTA’s largest union, won’t declare a strike deadline. He says he doesn’t want a strike. But he’s willing to have one if the two sides can’t get a contract. He talked to Philly Mag this week.

Are you at all close on any issue, or are you still as far apart as you were at the beginning?

We’re miles apart.

I know the contracts of the other unions expire this week. Do you have an actual strike deadline at this point?

I don’t have a strike deadline. My objective is to get a contract, that’s my role. I don’t have a strike deadline.

If you do strike, will Philadelphians be given much notice this time? I know back in 2009 some folks were cranky when they woke up, went to their trolley stations and found you folks were on strike. Will there be any advance notice for the public?

I can’t pinpoint what’s going to happen in the future, I’m not even concentrating on that. I can’t say.

You say you’re “miles apart.” What are the biggest issues that you’re miles apart on?

We’re miles apart on things such as the time of the contract, whether it will be five years or a two-year contract. We’re miles apart on health care, on pensions, all the major things are still sticking points.

Has there been any movement on either side during this time, or is everybody where they were at at the beginning of this process?

We believe we owe this much to them: We forego our right to strike and agree to binding arbitration.

That’s something they’ve refused to agree to so far.

They refused it. The question has to be why? Binding arbitration is not a slam-dunk on my behalf. It’s not a slam-dunk on their behalf. The question is, if you’re confident in your position, then why wouldn’t you go to a neutral party? I think that would be fairly simple.

I don’t want to go on strike. It’s not something I want to do.

How do you create solidarity with Philadelphians? It’s a labor-friendly town, yet it was hard to discern in the last strike. Is there a way you can fight for your rights, yet reach out to Philadelphians and keep them on your side?

I wouldn’t say I agree with that. You remember, after I lost the (union president election, after the 2009 strike) I went back to operating a trolley. I was received very well by the riding public. I guess it depends who you talk to.

Anytime there’s a major stoppage, somebody’s going to get upset. You’ve got to do the right thing.

What are you hearing from your membership?

My membership, they don’t want to strike. They want to work. But they’re willing to strike to protect our rights.

There are a lot of people who say that there are things you’re trying to negotiate that are things regular taxpayers in Philadelphia don’t get — pension guarantees, the ability to not pay so much for insurance. That’s frustrating to people whose private sector jobs don’t provide benefits as good as what you’re trying to get on behalf of your membership. How do you respond to that?

Here’s what I say: If they’re not getting the same things they should be getting the same things. After the negotiations, I’m willing to come and organize any group that needs organized. … Don’t you believe you deserve a pension plan as much as the top people in your own company? It’s a race to the bottom.

Do you worry if you do go on strike that you’ll knock down ridership to the point it won’t pay for salaries? Is that a worry at all?

Because this is a career for me, being a bus driver, a trolley operator, yes I concern myself with that, yes I do.

If you take what SEPTA’s saying seriously, ridership is higher than it’s been the last 50 years. In the past, we’ve gone in and asked to be treated fairly — they’ve said “We can’t treat you fairly because the economy’s down, even though ridership was good. And then the economy is rebounding and ridership is at an all-time high, and you still can’t be treated fairly?

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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  • DTurner

    So Willie believes that they have rider solidarity because riders did not stab/shoot him after the last strike? This guy really is out of touch.

  • Northeaster

    Willie Brown absolutely wants a strike

  • Daaim

    No More Septa Strike Just City And Suburban Buses, Trolley, And Subway See You on Monday Morning.

  • carole

    here is an idea – show up as scheduled, don’t be ignorant to passengers and maybe just maybe we would support SEPTA better re strikes and fare increases etc. but if you keep treating the customer like crap: showing up late, driving past a stop, not advising of a detour until after they pay you said fare, not speeding down the streets before people can sit down, enforce the disabled passengers/senior seats… until then shove your strike up your butt

    • Jorno

      IDK. I have never experienced a “rude” driver. They’re only honest people. If stupid uninformed, dumb people asked me the same questions every day, I’d be just a tad annoyed at that person too. Especially considering the sign at the front of the bus shows the destination, the bus route maps are available at, and you can even track your bus/trolley via System Status on the official SEPTA app….people should be more intelligent by now.

  • StrikeOrStarve14

    Everybody is going crazy over a potential strike. The sad part is, no one really knows the inside of what’s going on, but everyone is concerned for him or herself. No one considers what the drivers are faced with; it’s not all about a paycheck, it’s more than that, it’s safety, it’s respect, it’s security. When a driver gets shot at, beat with an object, spat on, or assaulted in any manor, that is news for a day but as soon as “strike” rings through the waves of media it’s top news EVERY DAY! Obviously, this city and all of its patrons are set out for their own good, who wouldn’t be. But I say, consider what that faithful driver is faced with everyday he or she sits in that seat, they don’t have a gun to combat the media stricken outraged public and certainly a camera will only record the incident for it to become some social media mockery. If SEPTA strikes, so be it, find out more about what’s going on before you make senseless, uneducated opinions on the system you’ve trusted all these years only to boast angrily about what they don’t deserve because YOU missed your scheduled bus, once!

    • Donna Smolij

      Respect is one thing but on the other hand do they want to bleed their riders dry. Let’s face it we are all living paycheck to paycheck, my benefits have gone up just like the rest of the cities. So why shouldn’t they (Septa) pay more for their own benefits. I am tired of everyone complaining that they don’t want to do what the rest of the taxpaying citizens and riders do on a daily basis.

      • angry man

        Last time I checked, life is about choices. I know it doesn’t seem like it but everybody made a choice of what jobs to have and because septa drivers choose to take jobs with better benefits than riders doesn’t mean they should settle for less because the riders have less. Also, peoples’ life choices led them to rely on septa in the first place. People who go through life blaming the world for the circumstances they find themselves in don’t want to hear that but it’s the truth. And ignorance is a two-way street and I’ve seen a lot of drivers hold back after somebody screams BACKDOOR MF. Then there’s traffic which accounts for the schedules being late. Bottom line, people should be examining what about my choices put me in a position where I have to rely on them in the first place. And most people in Harrisburg considers public transportation as welfare.

        • Donna Smolij

          You sir need to get a life. I never voted for those yahoos who are in office Harrisburg so don’t blame that one on me. I ride Septa and I take 3 buses to get to a job. like I said my feeling is that if I have to pay more for benefits, why shouldn’t the drivers. Why should I have to pay a rate increase to cover their benefits and salaries. I can agree that yes some riders are rude and obnoxious, but so are some of the drivers. I have seen them close the door on mothers carrying an infant, I have seen them slam the door on the elderly so when you say its a two way street don’t only judge the rider, judge the one who is driving the bus. And for all I know the way you sound so angry you could be one of those driving a bus.

          • Jorno

            They don’t close doors on elderly or people carrying infants. Also, we should ban strollers on buses. Period.

          • angry man

            Again, why should they. I mean making them pay for benefits because YOU have to is stupid. They choose to take a job where they didnt have to pay for their benefits and YOU did. So maybe you should get a job where you dont have to pay, its common sense. Having to pay because riders have to almost sounds communist to me. And i drive for Greyhound and our benefits suck. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and take some responsibility.

    • Joe Schome

      Once? You sound like someone who’s rode septa 3 times in the last month. Imagine riding septa 2 times a day, everyday…the arrogant drivers blow past you without even a meaningful apologetic look, they blame you for not knowing their policies, treat mothers with strollers like their a burden, yell at their customers, all because they know there’s nothing we can do about it as riders. Now they ask people who make 8 dollars an hour to put their jobs at risk, because they don’t want to pay 10% of their wages to health care? Septa drivers don’t care about their riders. Imagine I’d they treated their family members how they treated the average septa rider. You’d see what I’m talking about. Ride septa everyday for a month, then you’ll understand just how arrogant you sounded

      • angry man

        …just how ignorant you sounded…

        Hope that was a typo!!!

      • Jorno

        I ride every day and think it’s a fantastic system. And mothers with a stroller ARE a burden when you’re trying to keep a schedule. They should all be forced to use CCT. SEPTA drivers for the majority, do care about their riders. There will always be a few bad eggs.