TWU strike: ‘Our fight was for labor rights’
Published Nov 18, 2009 10:05 PM
After seven months of working without a contract, Southeastern Pennsylvania
Transportation Authority (SEPTA) workers in Transport Workers Union Local 234
voted to go on strike one week before baseball’s World Series, when
national attention was focused on Philadelphia. Management, corporate media and
state and local politicians quickly joined forces against the union with the
message: “Accept minimum wage increases because the economy is bad. You
should be glad to have jobs.”
The union had other plans. On Nov. 3 they hit the bricks. Six days later they
reached an agreement. In a period when unions across the country have been
forced to take major cutbacks, the more than 5,100 mainly African-American
workers received a more-than-decent contract.
As one picketing SEPTA worker put it, “Our fight was for labor
The issues for the transit workers were clear. SEPTA management pushed for a
two-year wage freeze. They first offered minimal raises for the final three
years of the contract, and then withdrew them by demanding that workers
contribute 400 percent more for health care costs. Management also wanted to
end workplace rights, including seniority in promotions. The workers said,
By the end of the strike, the final agreement did not contain wage raises in
the first year, but it did include a $1,250 signing bonus, a 2.5 percent raise
in the second year and a 3 percent raise in each of the remaining three
More significantly, there would be no increase in workers’ current
contributions for health care. A three-year dental plan was added. The contract
included a new provision that SEPTA would not pass on any increases in health
care premium costs that might result from passage of the national health
insurance plan currently in Congress.
None of the changes in the workplace rules that management sought made the
final contract. Workers’ pension fund contributions increased from 2
percent to 3.5 percent but the contract raised the annual cap on pensions from
$27,000 to $30,000.
SEPTA’s consistent underfunding of the workers’ pension fund was a
major sticking point. At a press conference during the strike, Local 234
President Willie Brown stressed that for years SEPTA put in as little as 52
percent of workers’ contracted pension contributions into the fund while
the company contributed 75 percent for management.
Because of the stock market crisis in March 2009 the value of the pension fund
had dropped from $729 million to $471 million. While it rebounded to $640
million by the end of September, workers expressed deep concerns that adequate
funds would not be there when they retired. One TWU member noted, “When
you gamble for 30 to 40 years of your life, you want a good pension at the end
of your working life.”
Saying they were willing to pay for it, the union called for a forensic audit
of the company plan. This specialized audit looks for potential fraud. The
final contract did not resolve this demand but agreed it would be revisited
outside of formal negotiations.
The capitalist offensive against this strike was relentless.
Throughout the strike, workers not only had to deal with negotiations with
management but with a consistently vicious anti-union corporate media campaign
that labeled the workers as “greedy,” “insensitive” and
“irrational.” Workers were told, “This is a recession, and
you can’t expect raises.”
Few journalists bothered to go to the picket lines, where the workers were more
than willing to discuss their issues. Instead, the media coverage focused on
how the strike inconvenienced riders. The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted a bond
trader who said, “The union is a monopoly. People hate monopolies. One
hundred years ago, corporations were the wolves. Now unions are the
wolves.” (Nov. 5)
While the average SEPTA worker makes under $40,000 a year, the press focused on
the top salaries of $52,000, which are reached only with considerable overtime
and seniority. No media coverage mentioned that management salaries average
$195,000, or that SEPTA CEOs get fully paid health care benefits. Moreover,
unlike unionized workers, those in management have uncapped pension funds.
The press focused on the impact rather than the causes of the strike. No
corporate media ever suggested that a positive outcome of the transit workers
strike could have a long-range impact on the contract negotiations of other
area unions. However, this must have occurred to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell
and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who pushed their way into the
Often FOX News interviewed only Nutter, treating him like the voice of
authority on the strike and the presenter of facts, while ignoring the fact
that the mayor had his own agenda, as city workers were gearing up for
negotiations. Incidentally, Nutter, who called the transit workers
“despicable,” is paid $167,000 a year.
That riders were caught off guard at the start of the strike was primarily due
to Nutter’s comments to the press that a strike “was off the
table,” although the union never said this. Nutter later threatened to
get a court injunction against the strike. SEPTA also waited until after the
strike to announce a fare increase for next year.
Rendell threatened to withdraw $7 million promised to SEPTA to cover the
signing bonuses if TWU continued to strike. The morning after SEPTA workers
returned to work, House Republicans in Harrisburg pushed for laws barring
transit strikes in Philadelphia. Public sector workers have had the right to
strike in Pennsylvania since the 1970s.
TWU Local 234 showed what the power of workers withholding their labor can do.
Already the SEPTA workers’ walkout is inspiring the 22,000 unionized city
workers in American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees DC 47
and DC 33, who have been working without a contract since July 1. Shortly after
the transit workers strike ended, members of DC 47 distributed an unofficial
flier to City Hall workers encouraging them to take off from work to protest
the lack of progress on their contracts.
Referring to Nutter as “Mayor Cutter,” the leaflet read: “The
Cutter is not negotiating with our Municipal Workers unions but he found time
to get involved in SEPTA’s union. ... Straighten your back and tell Mayor
Cutter you are a city worker who deserves to be treated with
Retired DC 47 President Thomas Paine Cronin told the Philadelphia Inquirer:
“If I was a current city union leader, I would be saying me too! Me
too!” (Nov. 10)
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