INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

Willie Brown used to drive a trolley. Now he's steering a union.

And piloting it through a transit strike that has halted buses and subways, stranded hundreds of thousands of riders, and made Brown, as he says, "the most hated man in Philadelphia."

Brown was largely quiet leading up to the Election Day strike, but spoke loudly and clearly at a news conference yesterday.

Mayor Nutter? "Little Caesar," Brown said. "He has destroyed any good faith we had to try to negotiate a contract."

Media coverage? "Misleading," if not "totally, totally false."

Length of the strike? "As long as we have to."

Brown, 46, is shaped like a bullet, round on top and thick through the middle. People who know him say he's smart, articulate, and pugnacious - and has a temper. He's been president of SEPTA's largest union, Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents 5,100 operators and mechanics, for 14 months.

Brown strode into the news conference wearing a brown overcoat, a blue dress shirt, and no tie. He spoke for less than 10 minutes and took no questions.

Outside the union hall, commuters and schoolchildren endured a second day without public transit, the strike having idled most SEPTA buses, subways, and trolleys. People faced lost time from work, gridlocked Center City streets, and overcrowded regional trains.

Nutter declared the 3 a.m. strike "an ambush of the citizens and the riding public." Gov. Rendell criticized union leaders for spurning a "sensational" contract.

The governor said the five-year deal had offered a $1,250 signing bonus, a 2.5 percent raise in the second year, and annual 3 percent raises in the last three years.

Observers familiar with the delicate, racially tinged interplay between SEPTA and the TWU see more at issue than money. Brown is a first-term president facing an election in 10 months. In taking his membership out on strike, observers said, he shows he's tough enough to stand up to SEPTA.

Many union workers are African American, the agency managers largely white. Everything between the sides filters through a prism of suspicion and distrust. Last year, Brown said contract negotiations would center on getting workers "the respect and dignity they deserve."

Yesterday, he hammered at what he said was an unfair disparity in how SEPTA funds pensions for managers and workers.

"We were forced into a strike," he said. "We will stay out as long as it takes to secure our pension."

SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said the agency had no comment on Brown or his performance as union president.

Brown, who lives in Southwest Philadelphia, is married with one child and one grandchild. He graduated from University City High School, and started working for SEPTA as a trolley operator in 1987. In 2004, he was elected union executive vice president, serving under Jeff Brooks, his close friend and confidant.

The men grew up together in West Philadelphia, Brown recalled in a 2005 interview, making their way past street gangs that offered the choice of fight or run - "and there was some point you couldn't run."

When Brooks took a position with the international union last year, Brown became head of the local.

"I think he's doing a good job. I like that he's stern, but uses a sound mind," said union member Juan Barrow, 43, a body mechanic who works on buses. "I got my trust in him."

That faith isn't unanimous.

"He didn't take questions because he can't answer them," said a TWU member who attended the news conference and who would not be identified speaking critically of Brown.

"Look at this hall. There's nobody here," he said, taking the sparse attendance as a sign of poor support. The president, he said, passed up a good contract during tough times, enraging riders who are struggling just to keep their jobs.

Others said SEPTA was in better financial shape now than in 2005, when it agreed to annual 3 percent raises. Ridership is up. And Brown is trying to ensure that workers share in the rewards, union members said.

"He's a fighter," said Zachary Maddox, employed as a general helper. "I think he's a strong leader."