SEPTA Strike: Why I support the TWU

My ancestors immigrated to the US for the assortment of typical reasons we all know about, including escaping the hostile climate towards Jews in Eastern Europe, and leaving Ireland in search of a better, more secure life.

It wasn't an uncommon story. My great-grandfather supported my Grandmom and her 11 siblings by driving a trolley for the Philadelphia Transportation Company- the precursor to SEPTA. He and his wife raised my grandmom and her brothers and sisters in a small Southwest Philadelphia row home.

My great-grandfather's oldest daughter married my grandfather at a young age. My grandfather played a little minor league baseball, and with a high school diploma in hand, went to work at the Aerospace program of General Electric (with a trip to the Army mixed in for good measure). Like many Americans in that time, he worked his ass off, never took a sick day in his life, and steadily moved up at GE, receiving promotions and increased responsibilities, letting him provide his 6 daughters, including my mom, with a 1960's style middle-class life, including a suburban home in South Jersey.

My mom put herself through college, and then grad school, becoming a Physician’s Assistant. She married another descendant of semi-recent immigrants (and another grandfather with an education and a home courtesy of an assist from Uncle Sam), and together they raised a comfortable, middle-class family in Germantown. My mom then took a stressful job at Penn because it provided great tuition benefits, which allowed her to send all three of her kids to wonderful, overpriced liberal arts schools. Two of the three of us have graduate degrees, with the third likely on his way. We live comfortable, privileged, middle class, lives.

From each generation to the next, parents worked to make the lives of their kids easier, and to give them more opportunities than they themselves had. And at each step, they were helped with an implicit and explicit social compact: that Americans could work hard, earn a decent living, and make the lives of their kids better. Signatories of that same compact included unions, big companies like GE, the American government, and quasi public employers like SEPTA’s predecessor, the PTC.

I go through this all thinking about the trolley drivers of today, who are out on strike across the city, because SEPTA will not properly fund their pension. (If you don’t think this is a big deal, ask city workers, who are now dealing with the fact that the city underfunded them for years, how employers underfunding pensions works out.) People I like, including some of my friends, as well as our less-rotund, but still bombastic Governor, seem to think it is incredible that the Transit Workers Union would make 'crazy' demands like SEPTA properly funding their pensions.

Me? Despite their poorly timed, late night decision to walk out, I support the TWU. The social compact that existed from the time of my great-grandfather, the working-class, trolley driving father of 12, all the way to my parents, is slipping away. With desperate poverty, crappy schools, and little to no manufacturing base, social mobility is less and less a realistic option for way too many families in America.

Every single job in Philadelphia that still pays decently, is secure, and doesn’t require a higher education, is an absolute blessing for our society, and is an avenue to empowerment for another family. Each one holds our society together. The higher we pay our janitors and security guards and nursing assistants and hotel workers and construction workers and SEPTA bus drivers and mechanics, the better off we all are. That is why I support the TWU.

Hey Dan: I'm looking for

Hey Dan:

I'm looking for more info on the sticking points for the TWU at this point. They're definately losing the PR battle right now, as many people think the offer that was circulated through the local media seems satisfactory for current economic conditions.

What is the story with the pension funding? What is the salary structure? I see many references to $50,000+ average salary, but I was told that might be the top salary. Do you know which is correct? How does SEPTA compensation compare to other transit systems?

Are there other sticking points?

Is the TWU getting its points out anywhere in the media?

I found some info in this

and this one

and this article:

Is it true that Rendell said, "Either accept the contract, or go on strike."


The pensions are the

The pensions are the sticking point:

As for salaries, yes, 50k is generally the top end:

According to SEPTA, bus operators earn $14.54 to $24.24 per hour; trade specialists/mechanics $14.40 to $27.59; and maintenance custodians $12.55 to $18.48. SEPTA pays about $1,300 per month, per employee for health care, which includes medical, prescription, dental and vision. Employees pay 1 percent of a 40-hour work week salary times their hourly wage rate as a co-pay for health and welfare benefits

again, it's not a race to the bottom

even if philly salaries were high, i'd say that $50 k for a family of 4 w benefits is a great middle-class salary in a city with far too few middle class jobs. especially with something 2/3 of population not having college degrees.

sorry sean

it's just that i have to point out truth where i see it.

My only concern with the

My only concern with the salary was the often-repeated inaccuracy that the average salary is $50k+.

The starting salary is about $30,000 for drivers and mechanics. The top end is $54,000 or $58,000 depending on position. That's based on 40 hours/wk; not sure if overtime is a factor.

Good stuff Dan

All the best.

Nice story

The pension fund issue is very valid, but so what? In the middle of an economic crises, with Philadelphia having a close call with a "doomsday budget" and the state and federal budgets in not much better shape, the pension fund is an issue that could have waited until full recovery. The TWU should have accepted a shorter contract renewal (one or two years) and brought this issue up again when the city and state budgets were in better shape. The pension fund issue is not an imminent problem, it is a long term problem, and the TWU should have punted this issue for a more appropriate time. They can go on strike at any time, and to go on strike now is a hideously bad decision.

There are lots of workers who depend on SEPTA to get to their jobs who are currently enduring economic hardship because of this strike, some very severely so. Where is the TWU's solidarity with these workers?

Or do we just support TWU because they are a union and union=good?

SEPTA was offering only a

SEPTA was offering only a five year deal at the end. I agree that a 2 or 3 year deal would allow better flexibility for an improving economic situation.

Regarding waiting for better days to fund the pension: why wasn't SEPTA funding it properly during the 'good times?' There's always an excuse as to why we need to shoulder the ecomonic burden. It's either to keep the good times going, or wait until the bad times get better. Had the pension been funded at the levels to which management agreed in prior years, it wouldn't be an issue now. And remember, the management pension fund is separate, and reported to be funded at about 90%.

?Or do we just support TWU because they are a union and union=go

Or do we just support TWU because they are a union and union=good?

Kinda, yeah. You support the right of workers to democratically organize themselves and make group decisions about collective action. It isn't your strike. It's their strike. So if you claim to support collective bargaining then you support the strike even if you don't think it's the right call.

And, by the way, if the workers believe the money is there to fully fund their pensions, why shouldn't they demand it. If the rest of the country has it rough should they just roll over too?

And for what? What would SEPTA do with those funds that would be so great in alternative? I'd rather know these future grandparents will be able to keep a rough over their heads at retirement and some toys under their grandkids Christmas trees, because odds are they have sons and daughters who can't: this being the city it is.

This Too Will Pass, for the guts in your cerebrum.


well said brady.

one important point about

one important point about the resolve of the union and its members is that they are not earning while on strike. A strike is a last resort and leadership tries to avoid going on strike. But they, and their members feel strongly enough about the issues involved to give up their income.

In the 1960's or 70's my father-in-law (FDNY) went on strike for 15 minutes to get dental benefits, and lost 2 (or 3) days pay. For 15 minutes.

Nice post, Dan

Well-written. Maybe you should get off your butt and stop loafing around, and write some more of these.

Things have been kind of, uh, you might say running off the rails a bit without you around.

agree, but...

I appreciate the sentiment of your essay.

Here’s the problem with your argument:

*that same union struck rather than allow a handful of African American workers to be hired during the Second World War.

*throughout the 1950s, when Philadelphia’s unions helped provide the financial foundation you describe for your family, they continuously and systematically excluded African American workers from training programs and apprenticeships.

This road to prosperity you describe worked well for some – it provided job security and benefits that allowed for the creation of wealth and a middle class life. But for others … not so much. Making a historical argument the way you’ve done in this article misses an important truth about how labor unions have functioned in the United States. The “social compact” of your second-to-last paragraph never existed for many Americans.

That being said, I completely agree with your final paragraph and support the strike.

I agree- I don't mean to

I agree- I don't mean to minimize that many segments of our society have been discriminated against, and have not had the same opportunities for advancement.

not a red herring


I was _NOT_ connecting the present strike with past injustices nor was I implying that Dan elided a history of discrimination. What I was trying to say was that an argument for unions based on economic productivity in the past has some holes. Finding ways to accurately and thoughtfully support the labor movement in tough, tough times is critical; I admired Dan's post but wanted to add a wrinkle to what I perceived as a reflexive embrace of unions as engines of equality and wealth.

Knowning history isn't the same thing as understanding it

Sidelinecast your understanding of the history of unions is remarkably limited. Unions can’t be separated from the larger society within which they are based. You can find examples of unions that advocated for racial and ethnic equality and examples of unions that did not.

You can find within the union movement itself people like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin who openly challenged the leadership of the union movement for allowing segregated locals. Rustin himself was ruthlessly attacked by members of the labor and civil rights movement because of his homosexuality.

Today the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association promotes the fact that some unions have supported gay rights as way of convincing people in Central Pennsylvania to oppose the employee free choice act. Does this mean that every union or every union member is supportive of gay rights? Probably not, because now as then unions reflect the views of their membership and their membership is drawn from society.

The United Autoworkers helped fund the civil rights movement; does that mean every member of the UAW agreed with the goals of the movement? Probably not.

So you can look at the Philadelphia of the 1950s and cast aspersion on the racial bias of its unions but that bias was not the creation or even the result of unions but a reflection of the despicable nature of humanity.

Thomas Jefferson owned and likely sexually exploited slaves. Prominent advocates for women’s suffrage embraced racial bias. Do we doubt the equality of all human kind because those who gave it so eloquent an expression were themselves unable to recognize the universality of the principle? No!

Unions are democracies which give workers a voice in their work. No democracy is perfect. Some have less voice, some have more voice, some have too little voice and some have too much voice. But all have the power to improve the working conditions of their members. That some have fallen down in the great march toward equality of opportunity does not detract from the fundamental role that unions play in guaranteeing workers a fair share of the fruits of their labor. Unions like our larger democracy have both great success and great failure in their history but on balance they are helping us achieve a better society.

So Sidelinecast next time you feel like giving somebody a lecture on the history of unions maybe you ought to actually have more than vague recollection of something you heard in between naps at college.

--Mark Price

insults aside

If you'd read my post before writing, you might have realized that

I did not claim that the racial bias of some unions in the 1950s is what shapes their behavior today.

I did not argue that all union members were good or bad, rooting for racial equality or closet racists.

I did not imply that the actions of human beings can be separated from their larger political, economic, or social contexts.

I did not respond to the initial post in an uncivil, disrespectful way (the way you have).

I pointed out that unions have served as sources of wealth for some and excluded others. They may represent the best way for workers to ensure a safe workplace and financial security, but at points, they have also served to exclude significant populations from those same benefits.

I think it's important to understand the positive and the negative ways unions have functioned in American history. In fact, there is nothing in my post to indicate my disagreement with your second to last paragraph, which makes almost the exact same point.

TWU Local 234

has been a union that has not only fought for its members but for the city.

It's been a critical player in efforts to increase funding for transit. It has supported innovative transit ideas. It has come up with ways of saving the system money. Despite its ancient history of discrimination, it's been supportive of its women members.

And it refused to strike when it had the most leverage, so as not disrupt home World Series games.

I support any effort to increase the well being of working people. And that means supporting labor unions.

But with TWU Local 234, the case for supporting the union is even stronger.

Can you elaborate and cite?

To the public, what we hear from the TWU is a giant sucking sound--they talk about how ridership is up, SEPTA has received stimulus funds, that they are doing well, and that all this increase in revenue should go into the TWU's pockets rather than reinvested in the system. They sucked in $6 million from PennDOT's economic development fund, which could be used to improve public transit, into their proposed contract. Now, I'm not taking a stance on whether they deserve this or not, or that the pension shouldn't be funded more, etc., but combining this giant sucking sound with the generally poor reputation of SEPTA employees' interaction with customers, your points ring hollow without hearing specific examples.

Investing in the workers is investing in the system

There is no system without workers to run it. They deserve to be treated fairly, and the system won't be run well unless they're treated fairly, no matter how much groovy new equipment SEPTA buys. And being treated fairly most definitely includes being told the truth, particularly on something as important as pensions. It sounds like they've been given the runaround on that for years. So the strike sucks, and it is sad that it has one part of the working class hurting another. But, hopefully SEPTA and the powers that be behind it, will figure out they need to do the right thing, and do it soon.

Nice Story - but

There is a story in the Inquirer this morning about how public sector salaries have outstripped private sector salaries. In addition, the public sector has remarkable job security - which is denied the private sector.

In referring to the "greedy" union, I think the average person instinctively knows that the SEPTA employee has a good deal.

The supporters of the strike and the TWU should consider that the strike is counter-productive. More people are starting to feel like I do - that the unions in Philadelphia do more harm than good.

Ultimately, the people have a right to say how much they want to pay their public employees. And I believe that most people are saying "enough".

To the newly minted member of YPP

Your point only proves that we need unions in the private sector to fight for the increased wages and higher job security.
On a different note: it's quite remarkable how people join blogs just to trash the TWU.

That isn't fair

Your swipe at the previous commenter was uncalled for. If this SEPTA strike inspires people to get involved on this site, then that is a good thing. Get more people involved in the discussion. Just because somebody disagrees with your opinion doesn't justify questioning their motives for signing up or dismissing their arguments as "trash". Unless this site was designed to be a "preaching to the choir" site with no tolerance for alternative opinions, people should feel free to sign up and comment on the discussion so long as they bring relevant and fair arguments and civility to the table.

But don't forget Natasha's main point

And essentially, to me, her point is that with income inequality rising rapidly, crushing unions in the name of working class solidarity is, to put it mildly, counterproductive. The main problem is that global capitalism is tilting the playing field away from work, and towards ownership of assets, real and otherwise. Those who don't own are increasingly at the mercy of those who do. You can blame SEPTA workers and their union for that, but that's not going to help you get a raise from your boss.


Public sector employees are getting a better deal because they have a union and that's good. Stan and Natasha are right. Rising inequality is a problem and Unions are the only thing slowing the spread. They aren't doing that great of a job at it, overall, but every little battle they win is a blessing.

So alg, you think Labor does more harm than good? To whom? Can you imagine what a dump this city would be if EVERYONE got that sort of raw deal most of our private sector workers do here? If no one had any money to keep up their homes and maintain rent.

I mean, it's already bad enough here. Thank God the public sector unions are holding the line so some folks in the neighborhoods can keep things together, because heaven knows you can work 40 hours a week in Philadelphia and still fail to tread water financially.

This Too Will Pass, for the guts in your cerebrum.

Wow, hard to believe the

Wow, hard to believe the Inky would be pro-private sector and anti-union. Of course, those guys wanted their lenders to accept $87M for a $300M debt. Yea, private sector!

The workers at the Inky are union, too

The workers at the Inky are union, too, and they see first hand how when an industry simply doesn't have the money to pay union wages and deal with pension liabilities, they get laid off, limited hours, or forced concessions. In the public sector, these competitive constraints simply do not exist so wages, pensions, and benefits hand a tendency to increase out of line with the overall economy. The fact that SEPTA is essentially a monopoly and insulted from competition exacerbates this--they have no competition to answer to so they don't feel direct repercussions when they have to be stingy on customer service policies, station renovations and service expansion. This is why the TWU feels that they can get away with asking for more constantly and never accepting concessions--and they get away with it most of the time.

Private sector unions have taken huge concessions all over because their jobs simply would not exist with them. The Inky staff is probably pretty resentful of the TWU workers' job security and, frankly, I don't blame them.

I am not anti-union in principle but in the public sector WE are the ones paying for this, so the union = good argument posited above should be evaluated much more carefully.

Let me see if I follow

TWU's claim is that their pension has been underfunded. As public employees, their pension plans needs to be adequately funded as defined by law.

Because the union is not sure that their bosses are following the law, and because they are authorized to, they went on strike to settle this issue.

You are saying they should not have exercised this right, because despite a contract and a law that guarantees them a pension (a taxpayer cost that presumably has either been paid or budgeted for) they should just chill and do whatever they are told by management?

Is that what you are saying?

Let's say that they did ask for more in pension. Do you actually know for a fact that taxpayers would pay extra? Do you know what kind of reserves SEPTA has or whether or not it could modify its own budget (maybe reduce management pay) to meet the pension demand?

I assume that everyone who writes on this blog identifies as a progressive. It is pretty well-branded after all as a progressive meeting place online. Yet at the core of what you and many others are saying about this strike is an essentially anti-union stance. And that's not real progressive.

What am I missing?

Ray, First, no I am not a


First, no I am not a progressive in the sense of most of the writers on this site. I am not blindly pro-union and not in favor of most of the high tax economic policies suggested here. So if that makes me unwelcome, then I will leave. Let me know.

Regarding TWU's claim of the pension being underfunded, I understand this completely and pension underfunding is a tragically rampant in this city and state. It is wrong, shortsighted, and maybe illegal although I am yet to hear to this claim from TWU. In fact, the TWU was been disappointingly quiet about what their true objectives are. All kinds of things have been bandied about (picking rights, raises, gender issues, etc) but the only thing they have come out and said publicly is that the pension is their sticking point.

They have every right to be concerned about their pension and their future economic security, and they should be. If that is their main concern, then they should be willing to accept concessions in other areas, like paying health care costs and annual raises. Every indication from the Gov is that they would not budge on these issues, either. TWU has not denied this.

Would tax payers pay extra? Not right now. But as a taxpayer I have a right to wonder about how my money is being spent. And to be frank, I'd rather see it put into improving SEPTA, not maintaining the status quo, which is a functional but overall pretty shitty public transportation system. What we do know is that the Gov pulled an extra $6million from PennDOT's economic development fund. I can think of a few things that could be spent on instead. SEPTA has some reserves, but actually a lot of that is not guaranteed because their budget assumes the toll on I-80 goes through, and there is a good chance that won't happen which would lead to higher taxes eventually, or cuts to things like libraries, parks, etc. To go back to my original point, GM, The Inquirer, and all other private sector businesses would go out of business if they reinvested only in worker salaries and benefits at the expense of improving their product, and this is essentially what the TWU is proposing they do.

All of this is not say the SEPTA workers don't deserve a fair contract and good working conditions--they do. But they need to be reasonable as well. My main beef with a lot of so-called progressive policies is that they never take into account the fact all of this money has to come from somewhere, and if you haven't noticed, we just don't have as much anymore. You might remember that the city narrowly averted closing all of our libraries and parks. How did they afford to keep them open? By asking for permission from the state to underfund pensions. There is a big picture issue here. We cannot afford to keep bowing to public-sector unions or we will end up bankrupting ourselves. Every extra dollar comes at the expense of something else.

We are the management

Apologies for replying to myself, but what I realized is that public sector strikes like this make us see unions from the management side. We pay these workers' salaries, and we depend on their services (transportation) for our own production (getting to work and school). I think the reason there is more backlash than you would expect from a "progressive" crowd is that this is what feels like when you are a manager, you are trying to get a job done, you feel your workers are fairly compensated and they quit work anyway. Labor relations are never as cut-and-dried as simply believing in workers' rights or not.

A bit tangential, but, regarding private sector salaries

Today's news tells us that even as unemployment is rising, productivity is increasing (as is the GDP). Prior to the recent credit crisis, we saw corporate profitability rise (along with productivity), even as real wages remained stagnant or regressed.

It only makes sense that in comparison, salaries should grow more rapidly in the public sector. Would you have it otherwise?

It isn't fair

To put down a Union for an attempt to fight the trend of the middle class pauperization by the economic and political elite.

I see that the middle class is in trouble

I see that it is much more difficult for many to get a piece of the American dream. And I think that there are ways to fight this. Healthcare reform, e.g., seems like a small step in the right direction.

However, the TWU leadership did not even put the offer to a vote of the membership. It seems to me that the union is looking out - well, for the union.

Philadelphia is not a great place to do business. Even though I live in the city, we located our teeny-tiny small business outside of the city. This SEPTA strike makes Philadelphia even less attractive.

I do not see any upside for anybody here.

armchair quarter backs

that's a term straight people use to describe people who talk a lot about stuff they themselves don't know about or act on?

the members of the union voted to authorize a strike. it's up to the democratically elected leaders (and it's worth pointing out that TWU leadership has changed a lot over the years) to decide if contract negotiations are going bad or good and whether or not a strike is needed.

it feels like some folks are pulling up every excuse they can to castigate the union rather than facing up to the fact the TWU is a group of individual workers who gain strength in bargaining together with an employer.

the employer in question is a bizarre municipal agency led by folks from 5 counties and still dominated by republican appointments. mayor nutter and rina cutler have done little to alter its basic anti-city structure and, really, it seems like TWU (as opposed to the riding public) is the only one that can bring management to its knees.

in the meantime, no matter how annoying or upsetting or dangerous or limiting the strike is (and it IS all of those things. this strike is not fun), it is a just strike and it's an issue where if you do believe in social justice and progressive politics,you really shoudl try to find a way to support the workers.

It's been said many times,

It's been said many times, but supporting the right to strike is not the same as supporting any particular strike. The public--who are SEPTA's customers and subsidy funders--have a right to evaluate the workers' grievances and decide whether they are reasonable or not.


Thank you for writing this.


Thank you for writing this.

Hypocrisy Unbounded

The hypocrisy of Governor Rendell, Mayor Nutter and the corporate media is a marvel to behold!

The state of Pennsylvania went without a budget for four months. State workers were unpaid for almost a month, social services agencies were decimated; many closing permanently; and schools and libraries were forced to operate on loans to remain operational. All because the Republican and Democratic state legislators could not agree about how they should take a pound of flesh from the workers of Pennsylvania to revolve the financial crisis created by these same politicians in their support of the corporate and financial elite.

In Philadelphia, the city workers have been working without a contract since July 1st. The main area of dispute is the same as for the SEPTA workers, years of under funding and outright looting of city workers pensions by Mayor Nutter and his predecessors for funds to cover budget deficits. Teachers have been without a contract since August 31st.

True to form, the corporate media attack SEPTA workers for defending their pension funds. The state budget crisis was meet with hand wringing. The strike by SEPTA workers is meet with hysterical cries of outrage saying SEPTA workers should be grateful to have a job and take whatever management offers.

A strike is a hardship for anyone, especially the strikers. The SEPTA workers should be supported because in the long run everyone benefits when workers are not forced to pay for the financial and business communities mismanagement of the economy.

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