When the clock struck midnight on Nov. 1, 4,734 members of Transportation Workers Union Local 234 employed by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) went on strike.
As Philadelphia began to wake up for work that morning, the working and middle class majority of America’s fifth largest city were stuck without their regular way to get to work. Traffic exploded throughout the Philadelphia metropolitan area and city leaders encouraged the beleaguered residents of our nation’s poorest large city to take ride hailing services like Uber or Lyft, which are largely unaffordable to most Philadelphians who rely on SEPTA each day.
To be fair, this is not an anti-union piece. I am a third-generation union member who owes his professional life to the legal protections afforded to me by the Metropolitan Police Labor Committee of the D.C. Fraternal Order of Police, who stuck with me when I was politically radioactive. The organized labor movement was the hinge pin of American ingenuity for generations, when my Grandfather was a Teamsters union delegate for dairy truck drivers in the Bronx, when driving a truck there meant you were taking your life into your hands. I believe in fair pay, benefits, and worker protection and therefore I never complain about the right to organize. Civil service unions try to assure teachers, cops and firemen are paid fairly but also assure that they are protected when a spurious complaint is brought against them or a political appointee wants to fire them for optics, despite what may be right or wrong. Trade unions are also extremely important as they give the technical training, safety and expertise needed to build and maintain our infrastructure in a grand, American fashion.
This August, The Hill published my three part series on corruption in Philadelphia. Central to that story is how unions fit into the culture of corruption that fuels many of Philadelphia’s economic dilemmas. Like many ‘rust-belt” cities, no local politician gets elected here without trade union support. This has made political dynasties out of unions like Electricians’ local 98, in where business manager John Dougherty is one of the biggest political kingmakers in Philadelphia. However, when unions lose focus from their duty of ensuring fair working conditions, pay and the steady work of their members; things get messy. Last year, the leadership of Ironworkers local 401, to include business manager Joe Dougherty (no relation to local 98’s John Dougherty), were all convicted of several federal racketeering counts and sent to prison. This year, electricians’ business manager John Dougherty and his former political director [now Philadelphia City Councilman] Bobby Henon had search warrants served on their offices and homes by the FBI. Add these events to the regular strikes by TWU local 234 that are currently holding working
Philadelphians hostage and even the most pro-union city can start to sour on the movement.
What the memberships of these locals need to do is take a cue from Detroit. Forty years ago, Philadelphia was America’s 4th largest city and Detroit was 5th, serving as a shining example of America’s labor movement. The UAW had numerous locals firmly in control of the political base and most of Detroit’s working and middle classes. At the same time, Philadelphia was considered “America’s workshop”, boasting the largest urban home ownership ratio in America; where anything from subway cars to manhole covers to Stetson hats were manufactured. For a variety of reasons ranging from poor political trade deals signed in Washington, design flaws and quality concerns to a high-performing dollar, the American manufacturing base started to dry up and move out.
While the decline of American manufacturing was not the fault of the unions, the problems of Detroit and now Philadelphia were exacerbated by local leadership. When American auto sales started to suffer major losses to imports in the 1980s and ‘90s, the UAW locals in Detroit kept negotiating for higher wages and retirement benefits, resulting in plants opening up in cheaper southern states and even abroad. As Detroit’s population declined as a result, the local political machine’s reliance on union support resulted in a large amount of patronage jobs – in where the local officials would give many out-of-work autoworkers a city job. This resulted in a city government still staffed to serve a city of 1.5M residents, when the city only had 700,000 inhabitants. That failure to right-size city government, matched with local corruption scandals and an underfunded pension crisis resulted in skyrocketing crime and eventually the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.
Philadelphia has the same problem, in where state & local politicians are reliant on union support to get elected, so an unethical alliance is made between the two. The result is bad for Philadelphia and union members. For unions, anytime a union local drifts from its core mission of looking out for its members and plays politics, compromises are made. The union has backed politicians in Philadelphia that lean heavily toward raising taxes, identity politics and social issues. This usually runs counter to being business friendly, which would bring large union projects into the city. So while the union, naturally, backs a winner so it can build political clout; this has resulted in a 7:1 Democrat to Republican voter advantage in the city. Therefore, Philadelphia loses as it has no checks and balances. This is demonstrated not only by the incredible amount of state and federal corruption cases in the Philadelphia area over the last year, but the mere fact that when a TWU local 234 calls regular strikes, no politician can be called upon to take a strong stance against them in negotiations. Mayor Jim Kenney, Governor Tom Wolf, and Congressman Bob BradyRobert (Bob) A. BradyIt's time to defund the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen Philadelphia Dem power broker indicted Americans connect with government at the library – so fix the Federal Depository Library Program MORE have a strong record of financial and campaign manpower support from unions like TWU local 234 and Local 98, which presents a clear conflict of interest in dealing with strike negotiations.
Meanwhile, America’s 5th largest city loses the essential service of public transportation. Firefighter’s local 22 and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 both have anti-strike policies due to the essential services they provide, but the region’s transit workers have walked out ten times in forty years. Their strikes have paralyzed the city with traffic, making people miss work and kids miss school. In contrast, New York City’s mass transit system, four times the size of SEPTA, has only gone on strike three times in its history. The similarly sized Mass Bay Transit Authority serving Boston hasn’t gone on strike since 1982 and WMATA, serving the DC area since 1978.
This makes many working Philadelphians wonder, while transit workers have more secure skilled employment than over half the city does, if they are just crying wolf because they know they can get away with it? Regardless of the truth on what’s being said at the negotiating table, informed people will become skeptical of a union local that has a record of going on strike in lieu of making the compromises that are necessary in today’s struggling economy. Either way, as a proud union member, I hope the membership can come together and restore their mission in the name of the greater organized labor movement.
Mannes is a national subject matter expert in public safety and regular contributor to The Hill. He serves as a member of the Pierce College Criminal Justice Studies Advisory Board in Philadelphia and is a Governor on the Executive Board of InfraGard, the FBI-coordinated public-private partnership for critical infrastructure protection. Follow him on Twitter: @PublicSafetySME
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