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The Philadelphia Transit Strike

Despite signs that agreement on a new contract was imminent, talks between the Transport Workers Union Local 234 and the city of Philadelphia’s SEPTA (Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) broke off Saturday night when the union asked for clarification regarding health care and pension benefits.  The union has been out on strike since Tuesday.

As for the strike itself, there had been speculation that, as a means of applying the squeeze, the Transport Workers would shut it all down while the World Series was being played in Philadelphia.  The union abandoned consideration of that radical move when Pennsylvania’s governor, Ed Rendell, ominously threatened to punish them if they went ahead with it.  Union leadership was split on the tactic.  While it definitely would have raised the sperm count of the bargain, it would also have risked alienating the community.

On Saturday, predictably, Governor Rendell issued a “war-time communiqué,” a melodramatic statement to the press intended to turn public sentiment, as well as the union’s nervous membership, against the Transport Workers leadership.  Surrounded by political cronies (including Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia), Rendell said, “In my 32 years in government, I have never been more disappointed by a negotiation than I am right now tonight.”

Thank you, Guv, your disappointment is duly noted.  You made your point.  Now it’s time to get back to work, because, apparently, you still have lots of bargaining ahead of you.  Local 234 president, Willie Brown, has stated that the only topics the union had unequivocally agreed upon were wage rates and the amounts of pension contributions.  That’s it.  Period.  Nothing more.

The union (which represents about 5,000 members—bus drivers, streetcar and subway operators, as well as mechanics) has requested answers to some profoundly important questions.  They want to know just how “secure” their pension contributions will be, and just how “fluid” their health care premiums will be should a national health care initiative be passed.  After all, given recent history, it’s not as if the American public has reason to blindly trust our financial institutions

Moreover, if past experience has taught organized labor anything, it’s that any gray area whatever in contract language—any loophole, any fuzzy phrasing, any ambiguity, any range of interpretation—will be used against the workers.  There’s never a coin-flip as to who is right, never a quid pro quo, never a grudging acceptance of the union’s argument.  It’s always one-sided and it’s always in management’s favor.

Apparently, one of the things that has infuriated Rendell and the SEPTA is that the union has requested an independent audit in order to determine whether the pension fund is sufficiently capitalized.  The union has bluntly stated that it believes the pension fund is “severely underfunded.”  Hence, the request for an audit.

Rendell is also insisting that the union membership be allowed to vote on the existing offer, a ploy I’ve personally seen several times while I was as a union negotiator with another industry.  Circumventing union leadership by demanding that the offer be presented to the members is a brilliant move, one with zero downside.

The worst that can happen is that the offer gets voted down by the membership, which sends the company right back at the bargaining table—which happens to be the exact same place they were to start.  But if a skittish membership loses its nerve and ratifies an inferior offer, the company has won.  Why not ask for a vote?  Management has nothing to lose.

No one is trying to portray the city of Philadelphia as “irrational” or “evil.”  Admittedly, it’s a bad time for municipalities, as cities across the country are going broke.  But experience has taught organized labor a bitter lesson:  When things take a turn for the better, the last group to see improvement are working people.

When corporations, entrepreneurs or Wall Street bankers go for the jugular—when they behave aggressively, mercilessly, cold-heartedly, trying to gain a competitive advantage—they’re portrayed as “tough and single-minded.”  But when a union tries to assert itself, it’s portrayed as “greedy.”  Organized labor has no one in its corner but its own members.  Simple as that.

DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy:  Essays on Modern Labor” (available at Amazon.com).  He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net