Harry Lombardo wishes he could claim credit for one of the more aggravating - or interesting, depending on one's view - pieces of union street theater in Philadelphia labor history.

Actually, it was highway theater.

"Nobody will believe me," said Lombardo, 64, a former SEPTA bus cleaner, who rose through union ranks and has become, as of Wednesday, the national leader of the Transport Workers Union.

Lombardo led TWU Local 234 during a 14-day strike in 1995 against SEPTA. At one point, union members, who had been at a rally in Norristown, were arrested for blocking traffic by driving 20 m.p.h. on the Schuylkill Expressway.

The police, Lombardo recalled, cordoned off the streets so that all the members leaving the rally had to get on the expressway.

The police "created a traffic problem to begin with. Some members took it upon themselves to drive cautiously," Lombardo said. "Believe me, it was not planned. But when we see an opportunity to stick you, we stick you."

Lombardo, of Melrose Park, was elected international president at the union's convention in Las Vegas after a tough rivalry collapsed in the final days leading up to the meeting.

Lombardo replaced James C. Little, who headed the union since 2006.

In Philadelphia, Lombardo is best known for the 1995 strike.

"He was a very able guy," Louis J. Gambaccini, SEPTA's general manager at the time, said Wednesday. "I found him good to work with. He was a man of his word. He was reasonable . . . by no means did he cave. Yet he was tough."

Lombardo takes the helm of the TWU - which in 2012 represented 115,902 aviation and public transit workers - at a critical time.

The union has thrown its support behind the merger of US Airways, which has major operations in Philadelphia, and American Airlines. TWU represents 20,000 ground workers at American. If the merger goes through, TWU workers stand to gain a significant raise. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit to block the merger.

"Once again, our members are caught in the middle," Lombardo said Wednesday. TWU workers had completed contract negotiations with the combined entity.

Lombardo said the union continues to believe that increased business from the combined airlines would help offset an inevitable loss of mechanics' jobs at American, which will soon add new planes, all under manufacturers' warranty and less likely to need repairs.

First on his agenda, he said, will be a restructuring of the union itself, which is spending more than the $44.8 million in revenue it had in 2012. "There will be downsizing, no doubt about that," he said.

He also plans, he said, to restore more power to local unions, decentralizing authority.

Lombardo, who has been executive vice president, the number-two position nationally, earned $253,627 in 2012 - $271,676 if expenses and other disbursements are added.

Lombardo said his campaign to lead the union has prevented him from focusing on the situation at SEPTA, where contract talks have opened.

But, he said, it doesn't surprise him that SEPTA recently announced potential draconian cuts in service.

"I'm certain we are going to hear a lot of doomsday scenarios," Lombardo said. "I'm also certain that, spending the number of years that I did in Philadelphia, SEPTA has a great deal of difficulty getting the level of funding they should get out of Harrisburg."


New title: International president, Transport Workers Union.

Commute: Drives or takes the train from Washington.

Weekends: Melrose Park, Montgomery County, or Ocean City, N.J.

Diploma: Cardinal Dougherty High School.

SEPTA job: Bus cleaner.

Cleaning tip: "At least every three months,

I clean."

Books: "I just read silly novels."EndText