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SEPTA’s Transportation Workers Union went on a weeklong strike that left hundreds of thousands of workers and students that rely on trolleys and buses without a means to get to their jobs and schools.

The 4,700 members of the TWU authorized the strike at the end of October when it was clear that they would not be getting the pension improvements and work rules they hoped for. The strike finally ended this past Monday when a tentative agreement was reached on a five-year contract that will lift a cap on pensions set by Septa at $50,000.

The good news for the short term was that people in the Philadelphia region could travel as normal. And election day would be able to go off without the added trauma of a striking transit system. Business could return to the usual.

That SEPTA workers have the strike as a mechanism to bargain for better wages is an increasingly archaic phenomenon. As an institution, the union is a survivor from another time. Labor unions did a great deal to build the postwar middle class in this country, but their membership is at an all-time low.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 11.1 percent of wage and salary workers were members of a labor union in 2015. This is down from the first year comparable figures were collected in 1983, when 20.1 percent of U.S. workers were union members.

This puts unions at a relatively far remove from most of the rest of us. And it likely has quite a bit to do with why a significant portion of the public does not approve of union strikes that strand hundreds of thousands of riders or prevent hundreds of children from attending school.

A long record of Gallup polling confirms that while a majority of Americans (56 percent) still approve of unions, it’s a far fewer number than when 75 percent approved of unions in 1953. In fact, unions enjoyed well over 60 percent of public support until the 1970s.

When those polls filter union membership, the picture is a little different. Among workers who are not members of a union, 54 percent believe unions are mostly harmful.

Friends of mine who are relatively progressive, who are inclined to support unions, found themselves struggling with the rationalization for SEPTA’s strike. Their pensions are already a better retirement deal than most people have. They also have a remarkably affordable health care plan. How is their current situation not fair?

Perhaps the question shouldn’t be why some workers have unions to support their rights. Maybe the better question is why more workers don’t have the means to bargain for better pay and benefits. Only 6.7 percent of private sector workers are protected by unions. The rest of us are on our own at the bargaining table where fears of being swiftly replaced are not at all unwarranted.

It should come as no surprise that in 1980, when union membership was much stronger than it is today, the average CEO at a large U.S. corporation made 42 times the average worker’s salary. Today that CEO makes 325 times what the average worker earns, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It is unfair that SETPA can go on strike to get better deals for its members. We should all be able to do the same.

— Pete Mazzaccaro

Pete Mazzaccaro can be reached at 215-248-8802 or pete@chestnuthilllocal.com 

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  • Jesse Crandall

    First thing Pete, it is infuriating you use YOUR space to pick on the working class segment of our society….specifically, the Transport Union Local 234….You write it is unfair that the workers can go strike and WE should all be able to do the same. If that is how you feel Pete, organize a UNION ! Stop your whining. You think the union workers pension are BETTER than most people have. Really Pete ?? C’mon, did you proof read what you wrote ? As far as your “progressive” friends & their rationale for a strike…please Pete don’t embarass yourself more than you have already. Bringing your friends into your essay to help prove your points, stop! Criticizing the rank and file health plan contribution, again, stop. Your NOT throwing shade at SEPTA management for what they have in benefits or salary…so DON’T do it to the hard working union members who do an Excellant job everyday 24/7/365. For the record Pete, they should be PAID more than they are now….it is one of the most dangerous jobs out there…..it should be respected as such by management and by people like you…

    • PMazz

      Wow, Jesse. You really missed my point. I’m in complete agreement with you. I suppose I wasn’t as clear as I should have been.

      The point is that union’s are not seen positively by many people. And their ability to strike for a better deal is often called unfair. My point is that we shouldn’t blame unions for doing what we should all do. Instead of criticizing unions for standing up for their rights, we should all do the same.

      • bob

        you are not kidding that you did not make your point’, no one I have talked to got it.
        until I read your reply to Jesse I was of the same mind as he.

        don’t complain, organize (and no I am not a member of 234)

        • PMazz

          I thought this paragraph was pretty clear:

          Perhaps the question shouldn’t be why some workers have unions to support their rights. Maybe the better question is why more workers don’t have the means to bargain for better pay and benefits. Only 6.7 percent of private sector workers are protected by unions. The rest of us are on our own at the bargaining table where fears of being swiftly replaced are not at all unwarranted.

          The two paragraphs following make a pretty clear and case for Unions as well. I think the headline, which I intended to be ironic, left people behind.

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