SEPTA on Strike: More Workers Deserve a Union

SEPTA, the southeast Pennsylvania transit authority, which is one of the largest public transportation companies in this country had decided to go on strike, citing dissatisfaction with benefit and wage conditions proposed by management. Drivers complain about a lack of break time and limitations on pension benefits (which are uncapped for management) (Laughlin 2016). They have negotiated a contract for the last few weeks, hoping to avoid a strike. But there is a certain historical pattern to these strikes. It is the eleventh strike, the last one being in 2009, which also happened to be my first year in Philadelphia. I was also dependent on the buses to get me home. Growing up in Austria, industrial relations tend to be a lot less controversial, though more workers are covered in unions and labor laws and protections are overall stronger.

Wikipedia (“Septa”) says that SEPTA has had more strikes than any other transport agency in the US. SEPTA is owned by the local county (Delaware Valley), serves 3.9 million residents, has 307 million trips per year, and has 5,700 drivers and operators. Some would say that 5,700 operators are holding a whole city hostage. Many people, who rely on SEPTA to go to school, work or to the doctor now have to scramble to find alternatives to get to where they need to go, such as carpooling, Uber, walking, or bicycling.

But what is strange to me is that the public discourse is so strongly opposed to the transit operator strike. How dare these people go on strike? Part of the reason why the opposition is so strong is because labor unions have become so weak that it is rather unlikely to see any strikes by any group of workers. It is the triumph of the management and the leaders of this country to have established an anti-union hegemony, which then also gets repeated by other working-class people.

The only way for the working class to press their interests against management is by showing solidarity with other workers. Given that there are only a limited number of drivers and their service is so vital for the community, they have so much power if they decided to band together. Imagine if all the 1 million Walmart workers could coordinate for a strike. They could double their pay overnight. Prices would go up a little, but profits will still be there, reflecting the higher rent incomes for the Walmart owners. And these are important jobs too: imagine management consultants, lobbyists and lawyers going on strike: they earn a lot more money, but the country would not stop working without them.

What the SEPTA strike reveals to me may in the worst case situation be a last stand of the working class, but it could also reinvigorate a labor movement, because people do not forget that a strike is still the most effective way to redistribute income from management to the workers. It is wrong for other members of the working class to begrudge drivers for their decent incomes, which should spark emulation rather than envy via union organizing efforts.

The unfortunate reality is that there are only very few workers, who are as privileged as the SEPTA drivers. Most of the employment that communities have are in the low-wage service industry, in hotels, bars, restaurants, retail shops, in Uber taxis, but also in hospitals, schools and universities. It is the most proper to organize these workplaces. (Princeton graduate students are apparently interesting in forming a union, though the graduate student government declared itself to be “neutral” on this issue: seriously? A student government that is supposed to represent the student workers’ interests?)

Some right-wing critics are running around with the meme that a higher minimum wage, unions and wage demands will accelerate the automation of service industry jobs. But those critics are making a wrong trade-off. Automation will happen regardless of whether there is any upward wage pressure. As soon as management receives new machines, which have the potential to offset labor costs and raise profits, they will install it at any given wage. For the workers it would be foolish to be afraid of automation and self-flagellate by refusing to make a better living and feed their families. Automation on such a large scale with tremendous effects on community life requires a smart government policy in response, which includes industrial policy for employment creation and/ or the universal basic income. The rational calculation of the workers, however, is to always demand higher wages.

The automation phenomenon is admittedly nothing to be scoffed at. Some SEPTA managers might subscribe to newsletters of tech magazines that promise that self-driving vehicles will soon come out. Managers are really looking forward to cash in when that time comes. Perhaps in a few years, self-driving buses and subways will completely remove the need for human operators. Some subways do not even use any human operators anymore. It is commonplace for many subways to have human operators, but they literally just sit and let the autopilot do the driving and operating the doors in the stations.

But as I said, these facts should not affect the tactical strategy of SEPTA driver union negotiators, who need to negotiate fair contracts for their members. It is the responsibility of public policy to ensure that all people can receive new jobs or a social safety net.

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