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 firstname.lastname@example.org