Nobody has to tell me that the SEPTA strike, now nearing the end of its second day, is a pain. Like a lot of folks reading this, I'm living it. And it's definitely a pain in my wallet, especially after -- for no other reason than my brain being on autopilot -- I bought my usual weekly pass on a trip to the supermarket this weekend, a week of rides that I only used for one day. Add that wasted $20 or so to the extra $15 or more I'm shelling out every day now for gas and Center City parking. My new strikebound car commute is somewhat longer, a lot more annoying, and (to the extent my readers care about this) is even adding to global warming.
But I can't complain. Unlike a lot of middle-class folks struggling to get to work through hastily arranged car pools, church vans or old-fashioned shoe leather, I have a car. OK, it's a 2005 Toyota Carolla with more than 198,000 miles and a gigantic dent that ought to have a sign, "College Tuition Payer on Board," But like its driver, it does have barely functional forward mobility. And I'm also "lucky" to work the night shift -- so I'm missing the massive hellscape of the SEPTA-strike morning rush.
But here's the bigger issue. I don't consider myself "inconvenienced." That's because despite losing some money and some time, I support the Transport Workers Union Local 234 and its strike, 100 percent. That doesn't mean I don't want the walkout to end ASAP; everybody -- especially the strikers walking the picket line -- wants that. I just want to see that end come by largely meeting the demands of nearly 5,000 hard-working Philadelphians -- in the form of a fair pension deal and humanizing working conditions. That's because 35 years of setbacks for working people in this country -- in the form of stagnant pay, stolen pensions and ever eroding health coverage -- is a much greater "inconvenience" for me, and likely for you, than sitting at a traffic light on Market Street for 5 or 15 extra minutes.
I've been brooding on this for several weeks, even before TWU members walked off the job at midnight on Monday. It started on the day when the union members first voted to authorize the walkout and the report I heard on KYW made no mention of the workers' grievances; instead, it switched immediately to a SEPTA terminal where commuters did nothing but vent their frustration at how inconvenienced -- that word again! -- they would be. That's pretty much how our increasingly infrequent labor walkouts have been treated over the last three decades, as mysterious and frustrating "acts of nature" that wreak havoc just like a tornado or a tropical storm or tornado. Rarely is there much mention of the actual labor issues, let alone the bigger picture of an American economy where a weakened working class has continually lost ground to overpaid corporate executives and other elites.
Around this time, professors at Pennsylvania's 14 state universities went on strike. Again, there was lot of shock and dismay. "Why would they do that?" asked one political pundit that I follow -- someone who's based in Pittsburgh, a city that saw blue-collar misery rise as its union clout declined. In that case, the faculty union "did that' because -- while willing to make significant concessions on pay and some benefits because of shrinking state aid -- they were determined to block changes that would have eroded academic quality and the value of what they do in the classroom. And by taking the bold move of striking for three days, those professors got the concessions they wanted.
It didn't hurt, in that case, that students and other unions backed the faculty demands. Indeed, worker (and student solidarity) can make a huge difference. Look at what just happened up at Harvard, where cafeteria workers struck for three weeks until a wealthy university in the heart of one of America's most expensive cities finally acknowledged the pay and health care demands of its lowest-wage workers. There, too, solidarity -- big rallies by students, faculty and alumni -- tipped the scale.
Such stories are rare, though. Since the 1980s, business owners and their popular mouthpieces in talk radio and other conservative media have sought to make pariahs out of the dwindling labor movement, ginning up anger against working folks who for the most part are just fighting to hang onto a standard of living and some respect in the workplace.
Their efforts have successfully blinded people to one of the most important facts of the last quarter-century: The direct link between the declining power of organized labor and the slow destruction of the middle class in America. Several studies have shown there's a powerful correlation between the steep decline in union membership in America since the late 1970s -- especially among men without a college degree -- and the surge in income inquality. Simply put, reduced union clout makes it easier for companies to award a bigger share of the pie to top executives and shareholders, and a smaller slice to the workers.
SEPTA may be a public agency, but the issues faced by workers are there are familiar to all. There is the matter of pension fairness, with rank-and-file workers seeing a cap on their benefits that managers don't have. Then there are basic issues of dignity in the workplace. SEPTA drivers want work rules that would make it easier to go to the bathroom between runs (crazy, I know) and would lead to less over-fatigued workers driving trains. This SEPTA passenger prefers one week of strike "inconvenience" to 52 weeks of worrying that my driver will plow into 69th Street sound asleep at the wheel.
But what matters the most (OK, not more than avoiding a fiery death caused by a sleeping driver, but a lot...) is the bigger picture. Pension benefits have been eroding, or disappearing. across the board -- for union workers, for government workers, for all sorts of workers. The American middle class just endured a remarkable 15 years without a pay raise. When a big employer like SEPTA gets away with pension unfairness or inadequate work rules, that makes it so much easier for my employer to come along and demand the same concession. Or your employer -- regardless of whether or not you even belong to a union. So this isn't just the TWU's struggle. It's our struggle.