Philadelphia Strikers and the Media


In Philadelphia, thousands of striking SEPTA transportation workers and members of the Transport Workers Union Local 234 are facing persistent attacks by politicians and the media.  NPR’s initial coverage of the strike seemed largely aimed at inciting tension between commuters and the striking workers.  It even gave credence to Mayor Michael Nutter’s absurd criticism: “To decide at midnight or so to go out on strike at 3 a.m. is, I think, the height of insensitivity and disruption to people and their lives.”

Since striking is a fundamental weapon that workers have to defend and advance their interests, Nutter’s comment would be analogous to criticizing the Phillies pitchers for refusing to announce to Yankees batters, beforehand, the type of pitches they’d throw during the World Series — that is, a World Series where all the games are played in New York and the umpires are legally employed by the Yankees who begin each game with a 5 run lead.

The media are eager to do the bidding of Philadelphia’s elite by portraying SEPTA employees as “greedy” for having the audacity to fight to maintain job standards won over decades of struggle.  Evidence of their attempts to pit workers against each other is the incessant citation of $52,000 — the average salary of unionized SEPTA employees.  This is somehow meant to be an indictment of workers for either refusing to pay for the capitalist crisis or simply having the gall to aspire to a semblance of economic security enjoyed by Philadelphia’s employers.

Mayor Nutter also declared that the strike “was quite a despicable act, quite frankly.  This was an ambush on the citizens of this city and the riding public.”

While Nutter may not consider transit workers themselves to be members of the public, a few videos online give the workers’ perspective on the strike.

Local 234 members are featured in the videos, stating: “We have children too that have to get to school that use busses. . .  [This is] a short term inconvenience for everybody but hopefully a long-term gain for the labor movement.”

Bus Operator James Guzzi adds, “Supervision has a good pension plan — we deserve one too.”

The Union notes that “Nutter and [Governor] Rendell fear that any successful and acceptable contract for TWU members will set a pattern for all city workers, including police and firefighters, and they simply do not want to provide a fair contract to the people who run Philadelphia daily.”

TWU also points out SEPTA’s relatively healthy financial condition and gives a breakdown of what its members are fighting for in Philadelphia:

  • Rectifying a long-term trend of SEPTA underfunding workers’ pensions
  • Opposing increasing worker contributions to pensions
  • Defense of “picking rights” that give employees the right choose their equipment and job placement based on seniority

Regarding picking rights, Local President 234 President Willie Brown explains that this modicum of worker control “prevents SEPTA managers from showing favoritism, and it limits the instances of sexism and racism that used to be the standard operating procedure for job assignments.  We are not giving up on issues like this, because it is about dignity in the workplace, and it doesn’t cost SEPTA anything to treat our members with respect.”

Striking is just one tactic in workers’ toolbox, however.  Perhaps Local 234 members could also consider a fare strike.  A fare strike could broaden the struggle in a way that directly speaks to the immediate interests of workers that use mass transit and counter the employers’ attempts to pit drivers and commuters against each other.  It’s a tactic that requires deep alliances with other worker and community groups,

During periods of crisis, employers and governments try to shift the costs of diminishing revenue due to economic contraction onto both workers and consumers, shoring up the profit rate.  In the public sector this can be seen in the slashing of services, fee hikes, and ideological justification of privatization schemes that allow business to capture public assets intended to meet the people’s needs rather those of private owners and shareholders.  A well-organized fare strike, therefore, has the potential to unite transit workers and commuters in a way that can address broader issues such as fare hikes and community control over the transit agency.

Beyond a fare strike, simply having available a wide range of tactics allows workers to creatively respond to employers’ tactics on a political, economic, and legal playing field that favors employers.  This may be particularly relevant as Mayor Nutter announced that the city may seek an injunction to force SEPTA employees back to work.

Blake Pendergrass blogs at Radicals at Work.  See, also, Pendergrass’s “Philadelphia Transit Workers Suprise Employers and Politicians By Striking” (3 November 2009).

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