Spring is here. And although I haven’t yet seen “a crocus or a rosebud or a robin on the wing,” one of the unmistakable signs of spring in our area is the possibility of a transit strike.
Don’t get me wrong. I realize because we haven’t had a transit strike since 2009, this is what passes as the golden era of SEPTA and the Transport Workers Union (TWU). That one wasn’t even a real strike since it lasted only six days. Compare that to 1983 when the City went 108 days without public transportation (also known as the golden era for taxi cabs around here). So let’s just say I’m hopeful this time around.
Of course, hope is something that evaporates around here more quickly than an investigation into political bribery. For instance, in an article dated around this time last year, the TWU asked SEPTA to start early negotiations on a new contract. SEPTA appeared to agree. Somehow we’ve gone from there to here with the City’s bus, trolley and subway drivers working without a contract since March 14th, and a possible shutdown of the three SEPTA regional and local systems looming on April 6th. You have to say it’s not promising when TWU’s President Willie Brown tells SEPTA’s Chief Labor Relations Officer, Stephanie Deiger, in response to a SEPTA settlement offer, that she “must’ve slipped and bumped her head.”
I confess that I have a dog in this hunt, rurally speaking. As a senior, I ride city buses free. Most of the bus drivers know me as the old guy making yet another food run. Except for an occasional empty bottle of Snapple rattling around the aisle, I’m a SEPTA fan. I carry a bus schedule with me like other folks carry their driver’s license. My driver’s license is used for identification only; otherwise it is about as useless as mammaries on a bull (and I cleaned that up). My lifestyle needs a bus showing up every 20 minutes.
The issues, as I understand them, involve — surprise, surprise — money. SEPTA supposedly budgets for a 3-percent wage increase for its workers. SEPTA drivers starting wages are reportedly $33,887 a year, going up to $55,620 after four years. A driver can earn up to $64,847 with overtime. There also are reportedly some health-care costs that have to be settled with the Affordable Care Act now in place. The issues separating the two parties have been discussed publicly only in the kind of vague terms reserved for figuring out what the hell is eating at the relationship between Ryne Sandberg and Jimmy Rollins.
The TWU’s Brown was president the last time transit workers went on strike. At that time, he indicated that he didn’t mind being the most “hated” man in town. I guess that means we can’t appeal to his approval rating. I’m not sure how SEPTA’s Deiger feels about a potential loss in popularity, but I’m guessing she isn’t losing any sleep over it either.
The thing is, Brown and Deiger aside, both parties know a SEPTA strike never really benefits either party, and certainly not the riders. It’s probably the biggest reason we haven’t experienced a SEPTA stoppage since 2009. Much of SEPTA’s ridership depends on public transit to get to work. According to the Pew Trust website, of the nation’s 25 largest cities, only five have a higher percentage of people using public transit to go to work. The same website also indicates SEPTA’s ridership has gone up 13 percent in the last 10 years. The burden of a strike hits working stiffs and seniors the hardest, the folks who have no alternative to SEPTA. The riders who have an alternative sometimes don’t return to SEPTA when the strike is over. The Phillies home opener is scheduled right after the strike deadline. Many fans have used SEPTA to get to and from the games, alleviating traffic jams in the area around the stadium, where much of our readership lives.
SEPTA recently got a funding boost and has plans to update its facilities in need of repair and modernization. There has been recent talk about possibly extending subway hours. All that good stuff can quickly go down the toilet with a strike. Why, with all the positive things happening, is there even the potential for a strike?
All of us know that in certain industries, there is a culture that persists that is even stronger than the issues that leads to strikes. It used to be that way between SEPTA and the TWU. Both sides would posture and point fingers. The representatives for the warring factions seemed to enjoy their moment on the local news. Egos got in the way while workers and riders suffered. For the last five years of labor peace, the image of both the company and the union has improved significantly. The transit system today is not without its problems, but it has made vast strides. By most yardsticks, SEPTA and its workers should be praised for the way they handled the past brutal winter with minimal discomfort to its riders. If either party casts that progress aside, maybe both of them have slipped and bumped their heads.
At the least, maybe both sides should have their heads examined.
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