Here we are in Day 2 of the SEPTA strike; commuters are still struggling to get around, and there's still no end in sight. We got to wondering about ways to prevent this from happening in the future. Here's one idea: transportation workers forfeit their ability to strike in exchange for binding arbitration.
Binding arbitration is currently used in contract negotiations for police officers and firefighters, who are barred by state law from striking. Basically, if the negotiating parties can't come to an agreement (and they usually can't), the contracts are decided by a panel of three people who act as mediators. Generally, both labor and management adhere to the results of the arbitration process, though limited appeals are possible. For more on binding arbitration, check out this post.
If SEPTA and the TWU agreed to binding arbitration, commuters would no longer have to worry about waking up one morning to find that the buses aren't running because of a strike. Union members would still have collective bargaining, but disagreements wouldn't cause the system to shut down.
Would it be justifiable? We think so. Mass transit is essential. Residents of Philadelphia need public transportation just like we need police and firefighters. This is particularly true during tough economic times, but also if we're serious about making Philadelphia more sustainable.
We ran the idea by SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney, who told me binding arbitration was not something supported by management.
“This has come up in the past. Our position has been that we believe a contract is best agreed through collective bargaining,” said Maloney. “It's best to get it done at the bargaining table. That's what has worked best for us in the past.”
Maloney declined to further explain SEPTA's reasoning, but it may have something to do with the fact that binding arbitration is often seen as producing generous contracts for workers. TWU did not immediately respond to a request for comment, although they have supported this idea in the past.
Philadelphia wouldn't be the first city to go this route. New York City switched to binding arbitration for transit workers after a strike in 2006. In Canada, the city of Ottawa is in the middle of considering switching to arbitration after a 52-day strike shut down its mass transit system.
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