The taxpayers are forced to sit back and watch while Goliaths go toe-to-toe.
Here’s my prediction for Game 3 of the World Series: The Transport Workers Union will win another round of labor negotiations with SEPTA and baseball fans will be able to take public transportation to Citizens Bank Park as if a strike had never been on the horizon.
While that might sound like a good thing for the city, I'm not sure that it will be in the long run.
If the Transport Workers were slugging it out with a soulless corporation like Wal-Mart, I would side with the union on principal. The disparity between the pay of American CEOs and that of their blue-collar workers is perverse.
But we’re not talking about David and Goliath here. We’re talking about Tyson vs. Holyfield, and both are missing an ear. Maybe it's time for taxpayers to climb into the ring.
SEPTA is a government-authorized monopoly. SEPTA is a government-subsidized monopoly. (The authority received $610.6 million in local, state and federal subsidies in fiscal year 2008, or 44 percent of its $1.37 billion in operating expenses). This arrangement assumes that SEPTA’s actions have the tacit approval of taxpayers. It’s time to be more explicit about what we want and expect from our investment.
I admire the persistence of unions – the obstinacy of unions – in the fight against cutthroat capitalism. But it's hard for me to sympathize with them when taxpayers are held for ransom.
Spokesmen for SEPTA and TWU Local 234 have said that the riders are important to them, and that both sides want to prevent a strike on the eve of Game 3. In other words, they want to avoid a PR nightmare. (Remember the seven-day strike of 2005?)
But maybe a World Series shit storm is what they need. TWU 234's five-year contract expired March 15. SEPTA and the union have been operating without a contract for seven months. Hell, they're making the state legislature look quick and efficient.
Why the strife? Well, according to the Inky, “SEPTA management has proposed no wage increase for the first two years of a four-year contract and a 2 percent increase in each of the final two years. It also wants to increase worker contributions to health coverage from 1 percent to 4 percent and freeze the level of pension benefits.”
TWU members want “a 4 percent raise each year and health contributions to remain 1 percent.” They also want “an increase in pension contributions from $75 to $100 for every year of service” and “changes in subcontracting and training provisions to allow members to do maintenance and repair work on buses and trolleys now done by outside contractors.”
Not gonna happen. Shouldn't happen in this economy.
I can't blame Willie Brown for pitching something so unrealistic, something so distant from economic reality. I mean, his members are bringing in $2.7 million a year in union dues, according to TWU's FY 2007 tax return. Now that he's president, Brown is easily making $96,000 a year himself – that's about how much former president Jeffrey Brooks made in FY 2007, when Brown was executive vice president and earning a $79,038 salary. And let's not forget that $5,000 expense account that comes with the territory. (I couldn't find pay records for SEPTA's top brass by deadline, but I bet it's comparable.)
But SEPTA's 9,000 employees are quasi-public servants, benefiting from public subsidies. Since the managers and union workers are having such a difficult time finding common ground, maybe a coalition of taxpayers should have a seat at the bargaining table.
Yes, SEPTA employees are taxpayers, too. But they're outnumbered by other taxpayers in the areas they serve. Surely, chaos would ensue if even a few dozen taxpayers were invited into the war room. But one from each congressional voting district would be enough to ensure a fair return on our investment. I'm speaking in economic, political and social terms here.
How this would work, I don't know. I'll leave that to more orderly minds.
The point remains: We're not disinterested spectators. We have a stake in the outcome of this game, and we should raid the locker room if we have to.
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.
Unionized labor may have its downsides, but the steady decline of union membership has been disastrous for American workers, including Pennsylvanians. That's one reason the TWU deserves your backing.
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