An observation: The Willie Brown of 2014 is not the Willie Brown of 2009.
Don’t misunderstand: They’re similar enough that it won’t really be a surprise if Brown eventually leads his union, TWU 234, on a strike that ends up shutting down SEPTA and inconveniencing tens of thousands of commuters sometime in the next couple of weeks.
But whereas the Willie Brown of 2009 seemed like he couldn’t strike fast enough — remember, TWU waited only until the World Series was over, then went on strike without any notice to the commuting public — the Willie Brown of 2014 genuinely seems like he’d like to avoid a work stoppage.
No, he won’t rule it out altogether: To do so would be to forfeit the union’s only real leverage in negotiations with SEPTA. But even as he was issuing ultimatums Tuesday about SEPTA’s unwillingness to provide financial data he is seeking, he made it clear that striking still wasn’t his first option.
He even suggested he might go to court to force a settlement before leading a walkout.
“If we go out on strike,” Brown told reporters on Tuesday. “It will be absolutely, positively our last option.”
He sounded similar notes during my interview with him last week, saying he was concerned that a strike might undermine support for — and use of — public transit, which in turn would probably end up hurting the jobs of the people he represents: “Because this is a career for me, being a bus driver, a trolley operator, yes I concern myself with that, yes I do,” he said.
And he took pains to emphasize Tuesday that if there is a strike this year, the public will know ahead of time. “We will notify you before we go on strike,” he promised.
Of course, the same conditions should’ve applied back in 2009 — in fact, with the economy cratering, there should’ve been even more urgency to stay at the bargaining table. At the time, Brown seemed like a Philly version of Emperor Palpatine when confronted with public frustration over the strike: “Goooood. Goood. I can feel your anger.”
(Actually, what he said was: “I understand I'm the most hated man in Philadelphia right now. I have no problem with that.”
So what’s changed?
The main guess here is to note that after the 2009 strike, Brown got voted out of his union job and went back to driving trolleys. That probably reminded him of a couple of things: A) It’s tough being a working stiff — and tough on families when a working stiff isn’t working. Transit trikes don’t just hurt the public; they hurt strikers who, in many cases, are little more than a paycheck away from poverty. B.) He might’ve been reminded it’s nice to have solidarity beyond one’s own union fiefdom. It’s easier to get a settlement you want from management if the public is on your side, after all.
Some of his actions, in fact, seem designed to win public support. The offer to accept binding arbitration on a contract, for example, can probably be seen at least partly through that lens, helping create a, “We’re the reasonable ones here!” vibe that will make a strike, if it happens, more truly a last resort than it seemed five years ago.
That said: Brown's still got a job to do. And that’s to get the best contract for his workers that he possibly can. He’s still willing to be colorful in doing it — “They’re not SEPTA — they’re DECEPTIVE” — he declared Tuesday. But the underlying calculations seem to have changed, making it a little more difficult for him to pull the trigger on a walkout.
"As long as we're going to get some movement,” he said Tuesday, “we'll keep moving along."
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