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31 Oct 2014

In Search of the Buckeye State

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October 31, 2014 Category: Week In Review Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO:  Unions who represent Septa employees led by Local president Willie Brown meet at Local 234’s Union Hall to derive a plan.  (Photo courtesy:TWULocal234)

Right now, the two sides in the SEPTA labor dispute aren’t even in the same time zone.  The only way to avoid an Election Day walkout is to get them to the Midwest by Friday. 

By Denise Clay

There’s a saying in presidental politics: As Ohio goes, so goes the nation…

Right now, those of us that rely on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, better known as SEPTA, are hoping that the transit authority and Transportation Workers Union Local 234 can metaphorically get to the Midwest.

“We’re as far apart as Pennsylvania and California,” said Willie Brown, TWU Local 234 president. “We don’t want to strike, but we feel like we have to. If SEPTA comes to the table with a serious offer, we can make this happen.”

At a news conference held at the union hall on Monday, Brown talked about the union’s decision to strike on Sunday and what it could mean to those who rely on the transit authority to get to work, school or, if the union decides to walk out next week, to the polls to vote. 

SEPTA and the union have been negotiating all week at an undisclosed location, but there is a lot hanging on how close to “Ohio” the two sides can get. 

Since Brown is best known for threatening to take the union out on strike in the middle of the 2009 World Series, the possibility of an Election Day walkout is a real one. 

It’s also not a concern for Brown. The only electorate that he cares about is the one that put him back in office after ousting him in 2010: his members.

 “I’m independent,” Brown said. “If we go out, it’ll be on SEPTA.”

While the union and SEPTA management don’t agree on a contract length (the union wants a two-year deal while SEPTA wants a five-year pact), the true sticking point between the two sides is pensions, Brown said.

Members aren’t getting out anywhere close to what they put in when it comes to pensions, Brown said. Although union members contribute substantially more to the transit authority’s pension plan as management does, their payouts are capped, while management pensions rise with their salaries, he said.

For example: If a MCD, a maintenance worker, with 30 years of service retires, he or she could get $2,500 a month, or $30,000 a year as a maximum benefit, despite contributing as much as $2,345 a year of his or her $42,640 annual salary as he or she moves up the ladder.

But for management, the story is different, according to the union. A Manager First Class, starting salary $61,672, makes a $555 yearly pension contribution, but would retire with a $2,775 a month, or $$33,302 yearly nest egg. As this manager gets promoted, his or her benefit contribution would go no higher than $945 yearly, but the benefit payout could go as high as $4,725/month or $56,700 a year.

“We should get out what we put in,” Brown said. “Our pensions are capped. It’s not fair that management pays less than 1 percent into the pension while the workers pay three-and-a half. We want pension reform.”

Brown also believes that a little bit of classism is at play here. 

“Right now, it’s about egos and we’re dealing with people who want to bust unions,” Brown continued. “We want a deal that’s a win-win for everybody.”

In a statement issued after the TWU press conference, SEPTA disputed this, saying that the pension plans aren’t as far apart as the union would have you believe.

“SEPTA continues to provide reasonable wage, pension and health care benefits for all employees,” according to the statement. “When considering Social Security and pension benefits, a typical TWU retiree has an income replacement ratio of 78 percent, whereas a typical SAM retiree’s ratio is 75 percent. Any difference between TWU and management pension contribution percentages are directly attributable to the pension enhancements TWU previously negotiated at the bargaining table.”   

Anxious Philadelphians will know how close the two sides are to “Ohio” when Brown and the union’s executive committee meet on Friday, he said. They’ll assess the amount of progress and decide if and when they’ll take to the picket line, Brown said.

In any case, Brown has promised that he won’t just spring a strike on the city. The citizens will get a 24-hour notice, he said.

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