SEPTA workers strike back

November 7, 2016

Democratic Party officials are pushing for an end to the SEPTA strike, but not justice for the workers who make the system run, explains Joe Cleffie.

Update: At 5:30 a.m. this morning, TWU Local 234 and SEPTA announced that the strike had been settled, and that transit service was being restored in phases. The tentative agreement must still be approved by a majority of TWU members before it becomes binding. Details regarding the terms of the settlement are scant at this time.

NEARLY 5,000 transit workers are on strike in Philadelphia, bringing the subways, trolleys and buses of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA)--which each day serve more than 900,000 commuters--to a halt. The strike began at midnight on November 1 after months of stonewalling at the bargaining table by SEPTA officials.

Last week, a state court refused to grant an injunction to SEPTA, which is seeking to use the courts to end a strike by members of the Transportation Workers Union (TWU) Local 234.

But Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, filed an amicus brief in favor of the injunction, and the court will continue to hear the case in favor of forcing strikers back to work when it reconvenes on November 7. Wolf and other top Democratic Party officials are trying to use the approach of Election Day as leverage to force workers to end their strike without achieving their demands.

Striking transit workers in Philadelphia take to the picket line
Striking transit workers in Philadelphia take to the picket line

But the Democrats should be putting pressure on SEPTA management, not union workers, if they want an end to the strike. That's because SEPTA has refused to engage in meaningful negotiations, preferring instead to use political pressure to deny workers their right to resist management's demands for significant benefit cuts. According to Local 234 President Willie Brown:

We can't get anywhere at the bargaining table because SEPTA has pinned their hopes on getting an injunction to end the strike. SEPTA Board Chairman Pat Deon's plan all along has been to rely on the courts rather than negotiations. He is the one using the election as leverage. This is not the way to end a strike or get an agreement. It's foolhardy to launch a legal Hail Mary pass designed to make SEPTA's high-priced lawyers richer and circumvent the collective bargaining process.

Despite claims about "greedy" workers that feature prominently in the mainstream media's coverage, the primary demands of the workers revolve around health care, pensions and workplace safety issues--and the basic dignity of a bathroom break.

The workers only opted to strike after management proved it was totally unwilling to budge on health care, pensions and workplace safety.

SEPTA management wants drastic concessions on health care: either a health plan that is vastly inferior to the one the workers currently have or a massive increase in the cost of the current plan from an annual average cost of $500 to nearly $6,000. The union estimates this would amount to a 10 percent wage cut for many workers.

The current pension plan caps employee earnings at $50,000 per year for calculating benefit payouts, but management is exempt from any cap when calculating its benefits. The TWU wants to remove this cap so workers' pensions will be based on their actual earnings.

And when it comes to workplace safety, workers want to change the current rules that mandate a minimum of nine hours between shifts. As one striking worker, Jason, said in an interview, "By the time you get off, get home, get something to eat, and try to spend a little time with your family, you are only getting about four hours' sleep! I should not be driving my bus on that little sleep."

Another workplace safety issue is that workers are denied time on their routes for bathroom breaks. Often workers have little choice but to use the bathroom anyway, sometimes resulting in disciplinary action for something that should be a matter of basic decency.

WORKERS ARE committed to striking as long as it takes to win their demands. But pressure is mounting to settle quickly. Philadelphia's Democratic-controlled political machine is worried about the potential impact of the strike on voter turnout if it's not wrapped up by Election Day.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell even suggested the Pennsylvania legislature should consider imposing a strike ban on SEPTA workers given the importance of the election.

"They never have traditionally, and I don't know of any jurisdiction that does consider them essential workers and therefore unable to strike," said Rendell, implying that workers shouldn't have the right to strike, but saying nothing about the obligation of management to offer a just contract. "It's something that, probably, the legislature should consider going forward."

There is little evidence, however, that the strike would affect voter turnout. A look at the map of voting districts show that the majority of places where Philadelphians vote are located a matter of blocks from their homes. While some in the Democratic Party may have these worries, it is also clearly a pressure tactic in order to pressure workers back to work.

In this atmosphere, solidarity--both from other unions and from other workers in Philadelphia--is key. We have to support TWU in its fight for health care, pensions and better working conditions. With both city and state budget shortfalls, bosses and city management will be after workers to pay for it.

In the 1970s and 1980s, private-sector workers were targeted as "overpaid" and "greedy." Now that CEOs in the private-sector have chopped wages and benefits down to size, it's public-sector workers who represent the new targets of concessionary contracts. If SEPTA workers can draw the line, it will represent an important rebuke to the whole agenda of austerity and scapegoating of public-sector workers.

In this fight, a victory for TWU over SEPTA can set more favorable conditions for the struggles ahead in both the private and public sectors.

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