When Congressman Bob Brady and other politicians stepped in to help prevent a transit strike during the World Series, I couldn't help but think: Haven't I seen this movie before? It seems like every time public sector workers strike or threaten to strike, elected officials -- ones who aren't party to the negotiations -- appear at the last minute to broker a compromise.
In this most recent example: SEPTA management was refusing to sign off on increased wages and workers were threatening to walk out during the World Series. Gov. Ed Rendell, Mayor Michael Nutter, and Brady convinced both parties to stay at the bargaining table and avoided stranding thousands of fans in South Philly.
I found myself wondering exactly how this works. Why are officials like Brady and Gov. Rendell able to find a resolution when management and workers seem so far apart? What special magic gets worked behind closed doors?
To find out more, I spoke with John Braxton, who is the president of the faculty union at Community College of Philadelphia. Back in 2007, professors at CCP went on strike for two weeks. They returned to the classroom only after Brady got involved in negotiations.
Braxton said Brady's contribution was simple: He found additional public dollars to pay for the union's demands.
“What he did with us was actually say, 'What's the difference between your proposal and management's proposal?'” Braxton told me. “In our case, the difference was that over five years we wanted $800,000 more in wages than management was proposing.”
That was too much for CCP, but it wasn't insurmountable for Brady. The congressman started working the phones and found a way to end the strike.
“[Brady] actually went to the governor and other state officials, and said, 'Does this money exist somewhere?'” said Braxton. “The governor said yes. He was able to supply a different source of money that hadn't been found. We ended up getting an additional bonus. Brady and the governor did make it possible for both sides to say we got what we needed.”
At first glance, this might appear irrelevant to what happened with SEPTA this weekend: To the best of our knowledge, the state didn't pony up additional dollars to prevent a strike. But when Gov. Rendell ordered both sides to stay at the table through the beginning of the World Series, he was threatening to do the reverse-- to cut off state funding in the event of a strike. Just like with the CCP strike, when the people who control the money started talking, everybody listened.
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