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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 rights.”

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, “No deal!”

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 years.

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 negotiations.

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 dignity.”

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)