As the strike by transit workers in Philadelphia entered its fifth day, it is clear why unions have such a tough time in the United States, where fewer than one in eight workers is covered by a union contract.
Although the average pay of transit workers is just $50,000 a year (that represents take-home pay of less than $35000 take-home after taxes or about $3000 a month to live on for a typical family of four), the suburbanites who feel put out because they have to brave huge traffic jams to get to and from work in the city are grousing that the transit workers are greedy for holding out for a slightly-less-than 4% per year pay increase over the three years of their contract.
I just got into a debate at the local YMCA gym with an older guy who probably makes over $100,000 a year and whose children are already grown, who was incensed that the "greedy bus and subway drivers" were asking for a raise at this time "with the economy in such a mess."
But I also noticed, as I drove my son into school this week in the traffic crush, that these same suburbanites are, for the most part, continuing to drive to work one to a car. What a lack of creativity!
My wife, who frequently travels to Rome to do research, has on several occasions landed in that city during one of its frequent transit strikes. She reports that the people of this ancient city take these job actions in stride, getting out their bicycles, taking leisurely walks to school, or simply going on holiday for the duration. People don’t get mad at the workers. In Italy, it’s understood that when one group of workers fights for better pay or working conditions, everyone benefits in the end.
This fellow I was arguing with about the Philly transit strike, said, "It’s not like this is the 1920s or ’30s, when unions were really needed because people were being exploited."
"Oh really?" I said. "You don’t think the workers at Wal-Mart or in your local supermarket are being exploited?" The truth is that working conditions for American workers have been getting progressively worse in recent years, while pay has actually been falling in real dollars, because union representation has been falling for several decades from a high of over 35% back in the early 1950s. Those unions, like the transit workers union in Philadelphia, which are still fighting the good fight, are really all that stands between ordinary American workers and a truly nightmarish return to a Dickensian era.
Does anyone believe that the type of manager that we have seen pillaging the economy on Wall Street, or stealing jobs and already earned pay from workers at Republic Window & Door in Chicago, is an exception to the rule? Hell no. American managers are congenitally ruthless exploiters of human beings constrained only by unions or their fear of unions, and by the protective legislation, such as minimum wage laws, occupational safety and health laws, etc., which Congress has grudgingly passed because of the pressure from unions and their workers.
We should all be cheering the workers of the Transport Workers Union Local 234 in Philadelphia for their grit and determination in standing up to the management of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. Their fight is our fight. They like us are struggling to pay rent or mortgage bills, to buy food for their families, and to pay their medical bills.
Workers all around the Philadelphia area should be organizing car-pools, getting their bikes out of the garage, and collectively telling their own bosses to cut them some slack if they’re late to work or have to stay home for the day because of the strike.
We should also all be writing letters condemning the bias of the local media in Philadelphia, which have as a group focused entirely on the hardship to commuters caused by the strike, and not at all on the issues confronted by the transit workers themselves.
Furthermore, it is not the fault of the SEPTA workers in Philadelphia that bus and subway fares are too high. Nor is it their responsibility to accept low wages to subsidize lower fares. It is the responsibility of the state of Pennsylvania to keep those fares affordable. Mass transit cannot and should not be self-financing. It is a social good. It helps protect the environment by reducing air pollution from cars, reduces wear and tear on roadways, and helps reduce the nation’s dependence upon oil imports.
Instead of complaining about the union for calling a strike, we should all be cheering them on. America needs more labor militancy, not less.
DAVE LINDORFF is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006 and now available in paperback). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org