Transit strike lesson: Learn to drive a bus

Not getting there: Market-Frankford trains idled by the transit strike.
Not getting there: Market-Frankford trains idled by the transit strike.

SEPTA's workers will come out better than its riders.

Posted: November 06, 2009

As I stood in line waiting for my train home for more than an hour Tuesday night, I debated whether the SEPTA union president had lost his mind, or whether I should get a job driving a bus.

As the time passed and the guy behind me kept sneezing, I got more and more agitated at Willie Brown, the SEPTA union head who walked away from the bargaining table in the middle of the night, leaving thousands of riders in the lurch.

Calling a strike without warning at 3 a.m. was dirty pool. More surprising, Brown turned up his nose at a damn good contract offer in these tough economic times.

Sure, Brown no doubt believed he was doing his job like any other tough Philly union leader. But you have to know when to take the money and run.

Brown, a former trolley driver, had already out-negotiated SEPTA's management. After all, how many other workers these days are being offered a $1,250 signing bonus and an 11.5 percent raise over five years?

And how many workers contribute only 1 percent of their pay toward health-care coverage? For SEPTA bus and trolley drivers and other workers in the union, whose average salary is $52,000 a year, that works out to $10 a week.

Brown had done such a good job at the negotiating table that SEPTA's management passed on trying to get workers to contribute more toward health care. Health-care costs are going up by double digits every year, but instead of getting employees to contribute to those costs, SEPTA had agreed to cover almost all of them. In fact, the Daily News reported that the proposed contract would have increased coverage of Viagra and other erectile-dysfunction drugs.

SEPTA's offer was already better than the one Pittsburgh's transit workers recently accepted. But Brown was holding out for better pension benefits.

It's easy to get angry at Brown. But frustrated riders should also wonder what SEPTA's management was thinking when it offered to give away the store in this economic climate. Gov. Rendell called SEPTA's offer "sensational" and said the union leadership was "nuts" to walk out. "I think the SEPTA workers would have jumped at this," he said.

That would have been true of workers in most other sectors. Given the recession and an unemployment rate near 10 percent, many Americans lucky enough to still have jobs are looking at salary freezes, pay cuts, and furloughs. And they are certainly contributing more than $10 a week to their health insurance.

In fact, it wouldn't be too hard for SEPTA to find some other qualified folks to drive the buses, subways, and trolleys. But you can't expect bold action from the management.

Remember, this is an agency that still uses tokens. Worse, it pays workers to sit in a booth and tell riders they can't sell them tokens.

In the end, riders and taxpayers will likely pay even more to get SEPTA's employees back to work. Rendell, who struggled to close a state budget gap, somehow "found" $6 million to sweeten the pot for the union this week.

Apparently that still wasn't enough for Brown. For days, the two sides weren't even talking as riders struggled to get to and from work and school.

Brown may have been driving the bus, but by calling a late-night strike and holding out for every last nickel, he lost all public support. On Wednesday, he called Mayor Nutter "Little Caesar" and accused him of hindering the negotiations. That may play well with Brown's members - at least until they have to pay the mortgage.

Here's a prediction: Thanks to the strike, many commuters will adapt to other modes of transportation. And those riders will be slow to return to SEPTA, hurting its revenues.

Then, sometime next summer or early fall, SEPTA's management will announce a fare hike as the bloated bill for the new union contract kicks in.

In the meantime, riders are left standing on the curb.


Paul Davies is The Inquirer's deputy editorial page editor. He can be reached at pdavies@phillynews.com.

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