Arbitration route needed to avoid SEPTA strikes

On her first day of work at a new job Carol Domagan, 33, Upper Darby, had to get on a pay phone to call her new boss to tell him she was stranded at 69th Street Terminal due to the SEPTA strike. ( Clem Murray / Staff Photographer )


The SEPTA strike that ended Monday wasn’t worth holding a city and a region hostage.
For six days, Transport Workers Union Local 234 threw the commuting public into turmoil. And when the strike ended, the union accepted an offer that was much like the one it had walked away from last week — an overly generous deal in tough economic times.
The union’s 5,000 drivers and mechanics will receive bonuses of $1,250 just for ratifying the new contract, plus 11.5 percent in raises over the next five years. The leadership of Local 234 held out for better work rules and slightly enhanced pensions.
SEPTA employees felt justified in striking, but they must know that the people who depend on them to get to work and school don’t share that view. The public is especially resentful because Local 234 used commuters as pawns, once again, in a game that the union feels it can’t lose. Resentful or not, many commuters need mass transit.
But the union did lose, big time, in the court of public opinion. Does the union care? The public already knows the answer to that — an answer that was delivered at 3 a.m. Nov. 3 without warning when Local 234 shut down all buses, trains, and trolleys in the city. It was no way to treat the customers who pay their salaries.
So great is the union’s leverage in these periodic walkouts that some have suggested SEPTA and its unions should agree to binding arbitration. SEPTA has resisted, but this option should at least be explored. The cumulative impact of transit strikes has dealt another blow to the region’s reputation as a reliable place to do business, especially when 39 other states have outlawed strikes by public-sector employees.
Now that Local 234 has secured such a good deal, there’s concern that the city’s municipal unions will demand the same in contract negotiations with Mayor Nutter. But the SEPTA deal shouldn’t have any bearing on those talks.
The two situations involve different pots of money. SEPTA’s financial picture has improved, at least temporarily, because of enhanced state funding approved in 2007. The transit agency receives very little money from the city, deriving the vast majority of its funding from the state and from fares.
Meanwhile, the city’s fiscal outlook is still grim. Nutter needed last-minute approval from the state to raise the city’s sales tax and avoid deeper budget cuts. It was a deal intended to keep the city afloat and preserve jobs, not to hand out signing bonuses and generous raises.
Gov. Rendell and Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.) deserve credit for acting as go-betweens in the SEPTA strike and working to resolve the crisis. As bad as the walkout was, their efforts helped to prevent it from turning into a long-term commuter nightmare.