Saturday, November 28, 2015

Stu Bykofsky: 'Most hated'? Maybe. But most effective

President of TWU Local 234, Willie Brown speaks to reporters.  (Akira Suwa  /   Staff Photographer )
President of TWU Local 234, Willie Brown speaks to reporters. (Akira Suwa / Staff Photographer )

ABOUT 5,500 of you, maybe a few more, will like this column. That's the number of Transit Workers Union Local 234's membership. Everyone else might hate it.

Although he believes he is the most hated man in Philadelphia, I stand up for TWU President Willie Brown, who stood up for his members and got them a good contract in bad times.

I don't come to bury Caesar; I come to praise him. When push came to shove between the blue collars and the blue suits, the union won. Brown did precisely what his role as a labor leader required him to do.

He doesn't get a gold star, because the bullet-shaped and bull-headed Brown said and did some dumb things along the way. The former trolley driver doesn't have Dag Hammarskjold's deft diplomatic touch nor Von Clausewitz's gift for strategy.

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    Brown made three mistakes. In descending order:

    1. He started the strike at 3 a.m., stranding befuddled riders who awoke Tuesday morning with no way to get to work. That was heartless. Brown later apologized, but he ought to spend a week on various bus, trolley and subway routes personally apologizing to riders.

    2. That would be unusual for Brown, because he drives to work, he told an interviewer. It's hard to think of a more arrogant statement. Brown basically told SEPTA riders, "You ride, I drive. Ef you."(I had no luck getting Brown for an interview.)

    3. He should have carried out his threat to strike on the Friday night before the first Philly World Series game. It would have affected mostly rich guys with $500 tickets, not the riding public. A strike - and the potential of an international black eye - might have panicked the mayor, governor, congressman and SEPTA into agreeing to union terms, which they wound up doing anyway.

    Willie Brown lost the PR battle, but he won the war.

    He dug in his dragon claws and wouldn't yield until he got what his members wanted - a fair contract, maybe more than fair in today's economy, but not outrageous.

    Good for them.

    They'll get no raise the first year other than a $1,250 signing bonus, raises of 1.5 percent in July, 1 percent in December 2010, 2.5 percent in 2011, 3.5 percent in 2012 and 3 percent in 2013.

    The union's health-insurance contribution remains at 1 percent of base pay, and the pension contribution increases from 1.5 to 3 percent over the life of the contract.

    I wish I had a contract that good. Unless you're blessed, a Wall Street pig or lying through your incisors, so do you.

    A lot has been said about SEPTA workers' $52,000 average salary (counting overtime). That salary is a ladder for the working class to climb into the middle class. What's wrong with that? Is that greed?

    Due to rising health insurance, pension and other costs, my take-home pay has been going down for a few years. Some of you are in the same boat. My union was called "greedy" by our owner for wanting to keep the defined-benefit pension that we, and millions of other workers, have had for decades. Such pensions are "unsustainable," we are told. But billions for corporate salaries, perks and bonuses are sustainable?

    So I don't begrudge TWU members for what they got.

    SEPTA was planning an estimated 9 percent fare hike for next year before the new contract. SEPTA will get 9 percent more from riders, union workers will get 1.5 percent more from SEPTA. Is that out of line?

    Some of the anti-TWU sentiment flows from jealousy, I think, that "they" are making more than "me." Instead of tearing down other working stiffs, why not work on pulling yourself up.


    Join a union and get a leader like Willie Brown, the most hated man in Philadelphia - except to his members.

    E-mail or call 215-854-5977. For recent columns:

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