Dear Willie Brown: Don’t Mess Up the Election

If there's going to be a SEPTA strike, wait until after next Tuesday


Dear Willie Brown:

I’ve got a favor to ask. You’ve waited a long time to lead TWU 234 on strike — the 4,700 members of your union who work for SEPTA have been without a contract since March, and they’ve stayed at both their posts and at the negotiating table since then. That’s admirable.

Now your membership has decided it’s time to strike. Well, not right now, and not this week. Maybe next week.  Maybe even Monday, Nov. 3.

That’s a really bad idea.

Willie Brown

TWU Local 234 president Willie Brown

See, that Monday is the day before Tuesday, Nov. 4, a statewide election. We’ll be electing our governor, lieutenant governor, and a whole slew of state and federal offices then. It’s a big deal.

And you’ve said you don’t quite care about that. “I’m independent,” you told reporters when asked if a strike could harm the election chances of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf.

I won’t ask you to care if Tom Wolf wins. I ask you to care that this entire election is seen as legitimate.

See, midterm elections, more than most, depend on turnout. It’s easy to get people to the polls in a presidential election. Less so in an off-year. And that can end up making a huge difference in what candidates get elected.

Well, consider this scenario: TWU goes on strike Monday. Thousands — maybe tens of thousands — of Philadelphians don’t end up going to the polls on Tuesday because it’s more pressing for them to find a way to work, or to get their kids to school, or to simply go buy groceries.

That’s thousands or tens of thousands of Democratic votes that go missing, most likely, but more important: That’s thousands or tens of thousands of Philadelphians who are denied their right to shape the state and federal governments. That could shape the outcome of a number of races — and over the long-term, it could deprive winning candidates of any chance of being seen as legitimately elected during their next two-to-four years in office.

That’s not a good scenario.

In 2009, TWU waited until the World Series was over to strike. That was tremendously important for preserving Philadelphia’s reputation on the national stage: Can you imagine how much negative national press the city would’ve received if you’d stranded Derek Jeter at Citizens Bank Park? Oof. You were somewhat wise then. You can be that wise again. The election might actually be more important to the city and the city’s future than some old game.

Back in April, I wrote that you seemed a changed man since the 2009 round of negotiations. Then you seemed like you couldn’t strike fast enough, like you were glorying in the damage and discomfort done to ordinary citizens because of the walkout. This time, it seems you’ve been much more careful not to accidentally alienate possible allies, to mitigate some of the damage done by a strike even while keeping your leverage. Those changes have been appreciated.

Mess up the election, and you flush any good will down the toilet. SEPTA workers aren’t always beloved now; can you imagine how the public will greet them if most people think their favorite candidate lost because of a strike? It’s a headache the candidates don’t need, the voters don’t need, and your membership will eventually resent.

So, Mr. Brown, please do what’s right: For your union, and for your membership. In this case, “doing right” for them means waiting a day or two more to strike. You’ve already waited this long.  Trust me: You don’t want to be blamed for destroying Pennsylvania democracy.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.