SEPTA: The Union Stands Tall

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.

By Brendan Skwire
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 14 | Posted Nov. 8, 2009

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The buses, trolleys and subways are empty in Philadelphia.

Photo by Sean Marshall, via Flickr.

Editor's note: Read Jacob Lambert's critique of the Transit Workers Union strike here.

While I sympathize with the riders who have been put out, I have no problem at all saying I support the Transit Workers Union. The Daily News reports that SEPTA management has been underfunding the pension fund by 52 percent, and Willie Brown says it's been up to 12 years since the transit company contributed. "We don't want to end up like AIG," Brown says, and I don't blame him: salaries cap out at $50,000, which really isn't that much money when you're raising a couple of kids, saving for the cost of college, and trying to save for retirement. And for the record that's that cap: bus drivers start at less than $30,000.

But more shocking to me is the crazy anti-worker attitude taken by so many in our city.

Look, I'll be the first to admit that a lot of transit workers can be jerks. But I think it's also worth noting that some of the worst aspects of using SEPTA aren't their fault: SEPTA's dysfunctional culture extends down from the very top. It wasn't the drivers who decided to jack the fare to $2 (PDF). It ain't the union that made the "no change" policy. And whether the transit workers themselves are unsympathetic or not is hardly the point anyway. It's about workers defending the benefits they fought for. It's about management keeping up its end of the bargain. And maybe it's because union membership is so low in the U.S. that people kind of forget why unions are important.

Unionized labor may have its downsides, but the steady decline of union membership has been disastrous for American workers, including Pennsylvanians. It's one of the reasons health care costs go up. And its one of the reasons so many of us don't have pensions at all anymore. It's why Wal-Mart gets away with treating its employees like garbage.

The Economic Policy Institute provides a long list of how unions benefit everyone, including non-union workers. For just a few examples:

• Unions reduce wage inequality because they raise wages more for low- and middle-wage workers than for higher-wage workers, more for blue-collar than for white-collar workers, and more for workers who do not have a college degree.

• Strong unions set a pay standard that nonunion employers follow. For example, a high school graduate whose workplace is not unionized but whose industry is 25% unionized is paid 5% more than similar workers in less unionized industries.

Most importantly, "Unions play a pivotal role both in securing legislated labor protections and rights such as safety and health, overtime, and family/medical leave and in enforcing those rights on the job."

Yet, I've heard way too many people follow our mayor's lead, who said "People have lost their jobs, they've lost their pensions, they've lost their health care, and most are just happy to have a job." Not that I expected more from a man whose first reaction to the city's financial crisis, ironically brought on in part by underfunding its own pensions, was to try to shut down pools and libraries (although notably not the one in his neighborhood), but this is a truly repulsive statement.

So people who are lucky enough to have pensions should bend over and take it when management doesn't fund their retirement savings properly, because other people don't have jobs? "My 401K is in ruins, so yours should be too"?

Or as Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky put it, without a drop of irony, "your negotiating hasn't been just about getting more for yourselves. It's been about getting more - much, much more - than the rest of us." This, from someone who's in a union herself.

So I emailed staff at the Daily News to get a sense of what a columnist makes relative to a transit worker. Everyone spoke to claimed ignorance. Then I called the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia, where i was told "salary information is confidential".

But if Editor and Publisher magazine can be believed, some of those columnists make quite a pretty penny. In the case of sports columnist Stephen A. Smith, it was more than four times as much as the most well-paid transit workers.

Still wanna talk about "much, much more than the rest of us", Ronnie?

I'm sure that the next time there's a disagreement between writers and management at 400 N. Broad, no one would consider walking out, because hey other people are lucky to HAVE jobs, right?

In fact, it looks like when the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia was going to strike, it was a VERY different story:

The company and the Guild have clashed over management's proposal to freeze and take over the pension, cut sick pay benefits and disregard seniority when it comes to layoffs.

Holcomb said he hadn't heard directly from the council about its willingness to cross picket lines. If they do, they would be breaking a long Philadelphia tradition, he said.

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Comments 1 - 14 of 14
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1. Jenn said... on Nov 9, 2009 at 08:27AM

“Thank you very, very much for this story. The harsh judgments placed by workers on other workers is so disheartening. The ruling class loves the fact that working class people are pressuring other working class people to simply take what's being given to them. Funny how it becomes "let's all stick together!" in a very twisted, anti-worker style.”

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2. Marc said... on Nov 9, 2009 at 10:40AM

“"I work hard. Ipso facto, I therefore deserve a salary of at least $50,000." The writer of this article apparently fails to understand the logical fallacy of such a statement. Just because you work hard doesn't mean you deserve a high wage, especially if you're working an entry-level job that requires no educational background or highly specialized skills (i.e. bus driver). I'm all for a decent minimum wage - I'm not pro-sweatshop - but "working hard" is NOT sufficient justifucation for a raise.”

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3. Bethsoda said... on Nov 9, 2009 at 02:23PM

“I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one, Brendan. While in general I support Unions, this situation is different. Also, from what I've read, not only was the offer put on the table fairly generous, it wasn't the majority of the union members that threw it aside, it was mostly Willie Brown acting like a spoiled brat throwing a tempertantrum. I have other friends who are in Unions themselves who make less than many of the Septa workers working hard for social services, as teachers, etc. and many of them have said that if they tried to ask for what TWU was asking for they'd get laughed at. In addition, this isn't like a teachers strike where students and teachers are required to make up days that were lost during the strike. This isn't like a factory strike where the people that are missing out the most are the big bosses. This was a strike that was selfish, pure and simple.”

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4. Bethsoda said... on Nov 9, 2009 at 02:33PM

“Would you be defending a union of social workers going on strike and screwing over their clients? Plus, what about the idea that's been proposed for mandatory binding arbitration for transit workers? Oh and good for Rendell: "After the collapse of Friday's agreement, Rendell had threatened to withdraw nearly $7 million in state funds to pay for bonuses of $1,250 per worker. By signing the pact, the TWU, which represents 5,100 drivers, operators and mechanics, preserved the bonuses." ( I honestly don't think they should've gotten any bonuses at all after the sh*t they pulled. Especially not Willie Brown.”

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5. Amy said... on Nov 9, 2009 at 08:09PM

“SEPTA Management was not funding the pension they agreed to fund. They could not be trusted to fulfill their contract without some arm-twisting (the strike.) Marc, driving a bus is a SPECIALIZED SKILL. They need a special license and on-going training. Elitist nonsense. I hope you tell the un-educated firefighter that saves you from your burning house what a lazy idiot he/she is. I love how the public and the papers are screaming about but how much they need SEPTA workers, but fuck them, we don't need to honor past contracts. Get ready for the teachers strike - we do have SKILLS and we are essentially prison guards who are desperately trying to teach through the madness.”

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6. brendancalling said... on Nov 10, 2009 at 07:45AM

"“"I work hard. Ipso facto, I therefore deserve a salary of at least $50,000." The writer of this article apparently fails to understand the logical fallacy of such a statement. "

And you seem to misunderstand the concept of "that's what SEPTA offers".
workers aren't DEMANDING $50K. that's what SEPTA jobs cap out at.
No, what you're saying is that "workers don't have a right to expect management to keep up their end of the bargain."

It also seems you misunderstand WHY the TWU went on strike.”

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7. cecelia said... on Nov 10, 2009 at 01:52PM

“Okay, first of all, to the writer comparing columinsts to public workers (and bus drivers are public as long as their company accepts city, state, federal funds), if a newspaper columnists' union goes on strike, that affects no one but them because who needs a newspaper to get to and from work? to and from school? to go get food? to get to a hospital or doctor? So your comparison is not even equal. This union and any union that uses the people -- human beings -- as hostages cannot say much to me. This and all the other strikes put some people so far in a financial bind; some probably lost their jobs from not being able to get alternative means of transportation, etc. So I don't care what the bus drivers say. They don't need a college education and it take 1-3 weeks for training on the bus, which is steered in the same way a car is steered, just a much bigger vehicle. The bottom line is that you selfishly left thousands and thousands of people down.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Nov 10, 2009 at 04:03PM

“If you want to raise multiple kids and eventually retire on $50K a year, then YOU made a mistake. You can't just say "oh I'd like to have x,y, and z" then point fingers at your employer if they don't give you enough money for it. There are plenty of other high paying jobs out there, but its YOUR fault if you're not qualified for them. Why would you think you're entitled to everything you want?”

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9. Kyke said... on Nov 10, 2009 at 05:53PM

“Brendan, I'm all for reading articles that oppose my personal opinions as I like to consider all sides of every story/argument. But this article is wrought with inaccuracies. I hope you get thrown out of the web-journalists union. What? there is no such thing? You were able to get this job without a union demanding that Philadelphia Weekly hire you? You haven't gone out on strike because you think PW owes you a bigger piece of its Ad revenue? You possibly even work a 2nd job because you have enough drive to earn enough money to support yourself on your own? That's commendable, and, in complete contrast to the ideals underscored in your article.”

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10. Kyle said... on Nov 10, 2009 at 06:07PM

“Some counterpoints to the highlighted points in the article:
- Pension: 90% of the people employed in the nation don't even get a pension. They fund their own retirement (as in a 401k), *if* they can afford it. Complaining that Septa is "underfunding" the TWU pension is madness. They at least have a pension, and even better, its being funded by their employer.
- Fares: Nobody was angrier at the last fare increase than I was. However the reasoning behind the increase was twofold: [1] fund important infrastructure upgrades (most still ongoing), and vehicle replacement/refurbishment. [2] cover the cost of *Guaranteed* raises resulting from last 2 contract negotiations (during TWU strikes) as well as a fully funded healthcare plan for union employees.
- No Change Policy: This was implemented because most booth employees cannot make change. I remember missing trains while the dunces counted out change for those in line in front of me. Believe me during busy times, this is better.”

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11. Randy said... on Nov 11, 2009 at 04:27AM

“Author says,"No, what you're saying is that "workers don't have a right to expect management to keep up their end of the bargain."
My work is doing massive layoffs, cutting salaries, cutting perks, no raises for the second year in a row. Should we all just walk off the job because we didn't get what we expected. That is the problem with unions. They feel they are entitled. Im happy to keep my job (for now). I accept the economy is bad, I accept revenue is down, I accept sacrifices have to be made on everyones part. So should the union workers. I am sure if the mayor forced them back to work or be fired, all of those employees would be back to work in a day. Another lame arguement by this author.

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12. brendancalling said... on Nov 12, 2009 at 08:22AM

“@randy: it's not about "what you expected". It's about what was agreed to and signed off on. It's called a contract.

And it's so funny how when it comes to contracts with workers, they must be torn up whenever its inconvenient to management. But when it's something like Citbank and the contracts written for the bankers' benefit, they're scared.
give me a break.
@kyle: I like how you blame the union for getting the best deal it could get with SEPTA. What a crazy outrageous act, trying to get the best deal possible.”

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13. Pen said... on Nov 14, 2009 at 11:57AM

“On the note of unions in general, I hope people understand unions aren't the only option to fight for workers rights. In fact, there are many workers out there who are organizing out a non-union model because unions historically have been corrupt, racist, sexist, etc. I respect and appreciate the history and origins of unions (e.g. 'unions fought for the 5 day work week,' 40hr day, etc). I acknowledge that and I'm grateful. But that doesn't mean a historical champion for labor isn't vulnerable to corruption and dysfunction. Unions are like gangs, armies, etc - organized initially with good intent and to protect of one's own social group but eventually becoming a monster itself.

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14. M.Norm said... on Nov 17, 2009 at 07:49AM

“I like to thank the writer of this article for a wonderful assessment of the reason why the union workers of Septa did the right thing by striking. First of all where do people get off blaming the unoin workers for striking. They have been working without a contract since March.There is obvious jealousy toward them for wanting a fair contract. Put yourself in their shoes
and deal with all the b.s. they go through each and everyday with the public
mgmt etc. People need to get a grip on theirselves and support the damn union then for once maybe you'll get yours to in the end. Regardless the union workers suffered too they have family and friends who were affected as well by the strike. Mayor Nutter had to stick his non governing ass in the
middle of it and look what happened. This guy is nothing but a glory seeker
and by the way why hasn't the city union workers gotten anything? They are still working without a damn contract as we speak!”


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