SEPTA: The Union Failed Us

For commuters, the denial meant lost work hours, missed school days, and a status quo of disruption. TWU chief Willie Brown, obstinate as a toddler, was absolutely correct: there was little reason not to hate him.

By Jacob Lambert
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Nov. 8, 2009

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Tili Ayala demonstrates for an end to the strike, Sunday outside SEPTA headquarters downtown.

Photo by Joel Mathis

Editor's note: Read Brendan Skwire's defense of the union here.

Early in the week-long SEPTA slap-fight, Willie Brown, head of the striking Transport Workers Union Local 234, displayed the indifference required of his position. “I understand I’m the most hated man in Philadelphia right now,” he said to the Inquirer. “I have no problem with that.” Such blitheness was impressive. After all, he had just brushed aside a contract offer that seemed utterly reasonable—even generous, given the economy. For commuters, the denial meant lost work hours, missed school days, and a status quo of disruption. Brown, obstinate as a toddler, was absolutely correct: there was little reason not to hate him.

Perhaps he was comforted by the support he was receiving from an unlikely constituency: the city’s left-wing progressives. As Brown blustered in the press, as his workers blockaded non-234 buses, and as the public’s frustration grew, liberals across Philadelphia leapt to their keyboards. On YoungPhillyPolitics.com, a repository of local progressive thought, Ray Murphy announced his solidarity:

“More than anything you have to support this strike because you have to support unions," Murphy wrote. "As union density has declined, we have all suffered. We should ALL be in unions.”

This was followed by a piece entitled “SEPTA Strike: Why I support the TWU,” by “Dan U-A”:

“Every single job in Philadelphia that still pays decently, is secure, and doesn’t require a higher education, is an absolute blessing for our society, and is an avenue to empowerment," he wrote. "The higher we pay our janitors and security guards and nursing assistants and hotel workers and construction workers and SEPTA bus drivers and mechanics, the better off we all are.”

Both essays—each followed by a string of sympathetic responses—were heartfelt and sensible. America’s widening income gap can be partly attributed to unions’ decline; nurses and janitors deserve an honest wage. Yet neither writer offers a cogent case for why, exactly, support for the concept of unions should translate to blind support for 234. If I’m a rock fan, do I have to like Spin Doctors? If I love movies, should I also love Norbit? Their arguments assume that if you don’t stand with one union—no matter how mulish it may be—you stand against all unions. You stand against the working man, a modern-day Pinkerton.

What the pieces do offer plenty of—especially the second—is nostalgia for a more labor-friendly era:

“From each generation to the next, parents worked to make the lives of their kids easier," Dan U-A wrote. "And at each step, they were helped with an implicit and explicit social compact: that Americans could work hard, earn a decent living, and make the lives of their kids better. Signatories of that same compact included unions, big companies like GE, the American government, and quasi public employers like SEPTA’s predecessor, the PTC.”

Those sepia-toned days—if they existed at all—have passed. Any illusion that “big companies,” “quasi public employers,” and “the American government” have any interest in the working class has vanished. So are unions our only remaining “signatories” of that compact—an aggrieved mass of Gompers-quoting idealists who simply want justice? Or have they become as bloated and grasping as those who, they insist, block their path to the American Dream?

234’s posture over the past week points to the latter. Brown’s rationale for the strike keeps shifting: first it was pension funding and job rules. Then it was the prevention of SEPTA “from sending maintenance work out of state” in order to “create jobs in Pennsylvania and keep riders safe.” He barred Mayor Nutter from future negotiations, calling him a deceptive “Little Caesar.” I suppose this makes Brown our own Marcus Brutus.

I agree that unions, while diminished, can still play a valuable role in our society. It’s important to speak as one voice, to put a check on power. And it’s unfortunate that over the decades, that voice, along with a viable middle class, has waned. But in that time, unions, fairly or not, have come to be seen as obstructionist and thuggish; more Hoffa than Norma Rae. It’s an image that 234 hasn’t done much to dispel.

Perhaps things haven’t changed so much, anyway. In 1964, Hubert Selby wrote of a machinists’ strike in Last Exit to Brooklyn. After a few months of deadlock, the union president delivers a progress report to his men:

“You know what we said when they tried that shit on us. I’ll tell you what we said. We stood up and looked those bastards right in the eye and told them, right to their fat faces, FUCK YOU! … that’s what we told them … we left those bastards standing. And you can bet your sweet ass those sonsofbitches know there’s no weak link in this union—and we’ll see them dead and buried and piss on their graves…”

Willie Brown would no doubt say that the man just wanted what’s fair.

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1. Pen said... on Nov 14, 2009 at 12:04PM

“I left a comment on Skwire's defense of unions but I'm going to say the same thing here: unions are not our only option to defend labor rights.

I repeat: unions are *not* our only option to defend labor rights.

Unions are a type of worker organizing, not the only option for worker organizing. There is a growing movement of workers organizing and trying different non-union models because of the growing corruption of unions, sexism, racism, etc.”

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2. tili ayala said... on Jul 15, 2012 at 12:09PM

“I could not have said it better myself! to Pen, yet I felt compelled to start that protest in Philly 09. I saw all the chaos it caused and no one was speaking up, I'm sure we all had our opinions, but no one took it to the streets, so I did! I'm in Cali now and if I see injustice rising hell yes I will protest again. It must be the Native american in me or just the love of God for justice in my heart.”

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