By Denise Clay
When John Johnson Jr. decided to run for president of Transit Workers Union Local 234 against Willie Brown, a dynamic incumbent best known for taking the union out on strike against SEPTA on Election Day last year, no one thought he had a shot.
Armed with the power of incumbency and the new contract he had extracted from the transit authority, Brown and his slate of candidates believed that they would sail to another term.
What they didn’t count on was an electorate of transit workers that was tired of feeling disconnected from those elected to lead them. Many TWU members didn’t know that they were on strike until they reached their work sites that morning. Union members were also aware that the way that the strike was conducted made them look greedy and uncaring in the eyes of the public, something that made their already difficult jobs just that much worse.
Using an approach that embraced not only union members, but also the riders they serve, Johnson, a graduate of Temple University’s Fox School of Business who is pursuing a masters in Jurisprudence at Widener University, and the members of his New Direction slate rode to victory in the Sept. 24 election by a vote of 1915 to 1672. He sat down with the Sun to talk about his new position and what he and his team hope to bring to union members and the riding public.
SUN: Thanks for your time today, Mr. Johnson. Congratulations! How does it feel to have won?
Johnson: I feel humbled. I’m glad that my members believed in me and the message and voted for my entire slate. I’m glad that they believed in us.
SUN: Were you surprised that you won?
Johnson: I wasn’t surprised that we won. But I was surprised by how many votes we received. We expected to receive 1,445 votes, but we exceeded our expectations.
SUN: While on the campaign trail, I’m sure that TWU members asked a lot of questions, especially since you weren’t necessarily well known to them. What were some of the issues that came up most often?
Johnson: I was asked a lot about the strike and whether or not I thought it was necessary. There were a lot of issues that came up, but SEPTA’s made up of 43 sections, so each place I went to had its own issues. My first priority is to go to my membership and find out what these issues are because they need to be addressed. I’ll then take them to SEPTA.
SUN: Have you met with SEPTA yet or are you waiting until you officially become the new president on Oct. 11?
Johnson: I’m going to wait until after the 11th. Willie Brown is still the president of this union until then, and I’m going to respect that.
SUN: From what I’ve read in other publications, this campaign had some moments where things got kind of rough. The other side threw a lot at you, commenting on everything from your education to your potential management style. Were you surprised about this?
Johnson: I wasn’t surprised by the tone of the campaign because I knew my opponent. One of the things that really made me mad was when they tried to use one of our members as a campaign issue. You don’t do that. Some of that tone has carried through during the transition. The outgoing slate isn’t letting us have access to the records we need to handle services for our members, which is causing such things as grievances and arbitrations to be put on hold. I think that Willie Brown is a good guy, but because we came out ahead, he’s not willing to work with us. They’re not hurting us by doing that. They’re hurting the members that they claim to represent.
SUN: Your campaign was unique for a union election because you chose to not only focus on TWU Local 234 members, but also on those who rely on SEPTA, and thus your membership, to get them to their destinations. Why did you choose to go that route and why did you think it was important to do so?
Johnson: I chose to focus the campaign that way because of last year’s strike. Riders are still angry about that. They were inconvenienced, but in many cases so were we. Many of us didn’t know that we were on strike until we came to work that morning. I wanted to make sure that the public understands that we are not the enemy. Our members live here. They’re part of the community. They volunteer their time. They know what riders go through and they want to make it better for them.
SUN: How can you improve the riding experience?
Johnson: We want to make sure that riders enjoy the ride. One of the ways that we can do this is by trying to get some flexibility in scheduling. By making sure that our members have enough time to take bathroom breaks and lunch breaks safely without it endangering the public or slowing them down, we can make the ride better for them.
SUN: Thanks for your time and good luck.
Johnson: Thank you!