Workers Vanguard No. 947

20 November 2009


In Face of Offensive by SEPTA Bosses, Democrats

Philly Transit Strikers Stood Firm

For six days earlier this month, a solid strike by the members of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 234 shut down public transit in Philadelphia, one of the largest systems in the U.S. Here was a union willing to fight despite the tough economic times, setting an example for city workers and others who face cutbacks. The walkout held off an offensive by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) bosses and capitalist Democratic Party politicians, with the union getting a contract after months and months of management foot-dragging. However, the union leadership gave ground on the key issue of pensions in the settlement, which is slated for a membership vote on November 20.

The union had warned it might strike just before the World Series games played in Philadelphia. But TWU officials kept the membership on the job after Democratic governor Ed Rendell threatened “significant consequences” if a strike occurred then. Once the strike began, Rendell, joined by black Democratic mayor Michael Nutter, sought to whip up anti-union sentiment by spreading misinformation and making the cynical claim that the strike was hurting the city’s working population. When negotiations broke down during the strike, Rendell sought to take away some $7 million in state funds meant to pay for a signing bonus unless the membership immediately voted on the bosses’ terms, circumventing the Local 234 leadership.

The role of the Democratic Party politicians during the strike starkly demonstrated that these representatives of the class enemy are no “friends of labor.” However, while denouncing Rendell and Nutter—who was dubbed a “Little Caesar” by Local 234 president Willie Brown—TWU officials embrace “good” Democrats. This included supporting the election of Barack Obama, who has handed out hundreds of billions of dollars to the banks amid mounting foreclosures and joblessness. One local Democrat widely praised for brokering the strike settlement is Congressman Bob Brady. The main interest of this liberal politician was not in getting a better deal for union members but rather in maintaining “labor peace,” as he made clear in a TV interview: “This strike has to be over.”

Bourgeois media coverage of the strike was a constant barrage of anti-union propaganda, depicting the strikers as “greedy” at a time when many people are being thrown out on the streets. What a sham! Hardly short on cash, SEPTA has a long history of demanding concessions from the union at every turn, boom or bust. Layoffs, benefit slashing and recurring economic crises are all features of the capitalist economic system, where the owners of the means of production make profits off the toil of the working class. In a deindustrialized city like Philly, once known as the “workshop of the world,” public sector jobs are one of the few opportunities left to make a decent living, not least for minorities.

Notably the strike foiled a ploy to link health care costs to the details of whatever legislation might emerge from Congress and headed off the shredding of seniority-based job “picking rights.” At the same time, although Brown vowed that the strikers would “stay out as long as it takes to secure our pension,” pension contributions were nearly doubled from 2 percent of base pay to 3.5 percent, partly offsetting a modest raise spread out over the five-year contract. In addition, there is a new cap on pension benefits and SEPTA did not open its books on what happened to their pension funds.

Union members told Workers Vanguard that Local 234 will sue the transit agency to get an audit. In fact, the union was in a far better position when it was on strike to get the company to open its books. Instead, the union tops are relying on the capitalist courts, which is a reflection of their pro-capitalist program.

At the same time, cops were welcomed on the picket lines. Illusions sown by the labor bureaucracy in the courts and cops
—integral parts of the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state—undermine the ability of the union to fight. The role of the police is to break strikes, defend the bosses’ profits and enforce racist injustice, such as the frame-up of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an innocent man and victim of a political vendetta.

Strikers suggested to WV that the union should raise the prospect of arbitration to pressure the transit bosses to negotiate. In fact, binding arbitration is a trap for workers. Arbitrators put forward a “neutral” face the better to mask their role as agents of the capitalist state charged with forcing through anti-union settlements. When arbitrators this year provided workers in New York City and D.C. transit with meager “rewards” going beyond what the bosses considered acceptable, management moved to reverse the decisions in the courts.

In Philadelphia, pensions are the sticking point in stalled negotiations with the city workers in AFSCME District Councils 33 and 47. Nutter is gunning for $25 million annually in givebacks. Also working without a contract are members of United Transportation Union Local 1594, which represents about 340 vehicle operators in SEPTA’s suburban Victory Division. The Local 234 strike has emboldened these workers, with the Philadelphia Inquirer observing, “The SEPTA strike may have been just a curtain-raiser to a bigger act of labor strife.” It would have best advanced the class struggle if the TWU and the city’s other unions had undertaken joint, coordinated action.

Philadelphia has a history of combative city workers strikes, and many TWU members are veterans of multiple strikes. But Philly is also infamous for its racist repression. What is needed is a class-struggle leadership that mobilizes labor’s power, at the head of all the oppressed, against the bosses and their state, taking up the struggle against racist oppression and emblazoning such causes as the fight to free Mumia on labor’s banner. Working people should have a party that fights for their class interests, a multiracial workers party committed to overturning this whole system of capitalist exploitation and establishing a workers government.

We reprint below a leaflet issued by the New York City Spartacist League and distributed with WV on the picket lines.

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NOVEMBER 3—After working since mid-March without a contract, some 5,100 members of Transport Workers Union Local 234 went on strike early this morning, bringing Philadelphia’s subways, buses and trolleys to a halt right after the World Series shifted back to New York City. The strikers are taking on a hard-nosed employer, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which has been actively backed by a coterie of Democratic Party officials, from Mayor Michael Nutter to Governor Ed Rendell. With the city’s transit system averaging more than 928,000 trips each weekday, the impact of the walkout was immediate, prompting the transit bosses and capitalist politicians to cry foul. Rendell called the strike “irresponsible” while Nutter denounced it as “an outrageous action.”

SEPTA’s insistence on foisting benefit and work-rule concessions on the TWU comes in the context of a broader offensive by the ruling class. Whether in the form of the gutting of the United Auto Workers union under the “bailout” deal brokered by the Obama administration, the steady climb in unemployment or government cutbacks, working people have been made to pay for the capitalist economic crisis. For its part, SEPTA has raided the underfunded union pension plan and is offering a meager pay raise well below inflation—even as it has collected new state funding and over $200 million in federal stimulus money. From New York to California and elsewhere, city and public workers have been under attack. It’s high time that labor waged some class struggle against these assaults. If successful, the Philly transit workers strike, the 9th since 1975, would be a victory for all working people.

Management also wants “flexibility” in work rules—i.e., speedup and job elimination—and to tear up “picking rights,” the right to choose work assignments based on seniority, which would give it a free hand to discriminate against minority workers and union militants. In the “city of brotherly love,” such discrimination is nothing new. In fact, SEPTA’s predecessor fought the TWU’s organizing drive in the mid 1940s by attempting to incite a racist backlash. Rendell, a major force in the Democratic Party nationally, was the D.A. who framed up former Black Panther and MOVE supporter Mumia Abu-Jamal.

TWU Local 234 must actively reach out to Philadelphia’s black and Latino population, which is subjected to grinding poverty and brutal police repression, as well as the rest of city labor and regional transit workers. The unions’ support to the capitalist Democratic Party is counterposed to the interests of labor. There must be no reliance on capitalist politicians, whether Democratic or Republican, the cops or the courts—all enemies of the working class. A hard-fought struggle could help spark a wider fight by the labor movement. What is needed is a fight for jobs for all at union wages, for free mass transit and free health care for all and for labor/black mobilizations against racist attacks. Victory to the transit workers strike!