Monday, November 23, 2009

Strike Out!

Hooray! The SEPTA strike is over. For those of you not in the Philadelphia area, SEPTA is the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. It is a primary transportation service for most of the Philadelphia and Philadelphia environs population. In the beginning of this month the workers of SEPTA, whom are unionized as Transport Workers Union Local 234, went on strike at 3 am. Of course, they wanted to strike at 12:01am on Halloween, but did not knowing the wrath of the public if they shut down public transportation during the Phillies World Series attempt. So they waited a few days and then shut down the public transportation to and from Philadelphia, causing widespread inconvenience. This was of course, the whole idea, and it worked, as six days later, a deal was reached to end the strike.

Was it really a deal? For the union, it certainly was a great deal. Let us take a look at what they won. First, they not only retain their pensions, but they get an additional $5000 a year for a $30,000 a year pension payment. Not too bad for a pension plan that is already horribly underfunded. Historically it has been funded by workers contributing a grand total of 2% of their paycheck. Now the workers have to contribute a whopping 3%. What financial hardships they must endure. On top of that, there is no disclosure for the management of the pension fund. They could be investing in alchemy or a Madoff fund for all we know. And the union also won the ability to prevent auditing of the pension fund. That is a gigantic coup. Not only is the public on the hook for the union’s pension payments if it becomes underfunded in the future (which it most certainly will), it is forbidden from looking at the books to see if the money is being handled correctly. Don’t you just love public servant pension plans? They might as well all be invested in the latest fad stock. If it makes money, it makes it big and the fund managers make out like bandits. If it fails, who cares, because Joe Q. Public will pay for it then.

How about healthcare? Are we worried about Obamacare affecting insurance premium rates and having that cost trickle down from the company to us? Do we worry if our businesses will be able to afford to offer healthcare policies? No if we are in TWU Local 234! Not only will they continue to contribute a measly 1% of their paycheck, they will retain all their current benefits and prescription coverage’s and dental. That’s right. They have dental. And they have a PPO, not some gatekeeper HMO tee ball plan. So what does that mean? It means that not only will you have to pay more for health insurance to keep the same coverage or lose coverage to maintain costs, you will have to pay more taxes to pay for the increase in healthcare costs for the union, since they sure are not going to pay for it. And since the money has to come from somewhere, it will come from the public. And do not forget—the contract was signed with SEPTA/Philadelphia/Pennsylvania, so if there is a union healthcare fund deficit, you know from where the money to make up for it will come.

How about salary? With the economy still in somewhat of a slump, many businesses are freezing pay raises. Not SEPTA. They have to pay out an 11.5% pay raise over the next five years. Are these people professional athletes? How many people have five-year contracts with the volatility of the economy these days? Also, there is a $1250 signing bonus for each union worker. Just for renewing their contract. Why even bother with this? Why not just given them free healthcare and reduce the contract by twelve pages of legal parlance? Mayor Nutter of Philadelphia had to go to Harrisburg and plead with the Pennsylvania Capitol for more money so that he could pay past wages earned of city workers and not have to layoff more workers in the near future. But we somehow have $7 million stuffed in the Pennsylvania mattress to payout signing bonuses for striking workers? Of course we do not. It’s coming out of our mattresses through our taxes.

There are many other facets that also show how the TWU Local 234 spanked SEPTA and the public, but are not available to the public. For instance, the layoff clause has been retained, which considering the current contract negotiations, likely covers income for laid off workers for at least six months but probably an entire year. The UAW had clauses of that ridiculous magnitude and look where it is now. It would certainly seem that TWU Local 234 has won the battle, but has it really? And at what cost?

Since the ending of the strike, Pennsylvania legislators have been up in arms about TWU Local 234. And it has spilled over to essentially all public service sector unions. A representative made a specific comment about how the sudden strike left many night shift nurses stranded and unable to get home. The TWU Local will argue that the strike was not sudden, but planned for several months and was even advertised. But really, who puts that sort of information into their daily planner so they can arrange alternative transportation for that day? Really? One might also argue that this particular representative obviously knows a nurse that works night shift—a family member, a friend, or someone close to a powerful campaign contributor. Otherwise, they would likely have used another example based on easy personal acquaintances rather than sit and consider the ramifications of the strike. After all, they are busy politicians. But I digress. The legislators are looking to prohibit the striking of public sector unions, and particularly those of essential services. This is similar to Ronald Reagan’s problem with the air traffic controllers. There is no doubt that it will snowball to include any trade, whether public or private, that the majority of politicians believe is essential on that particular day. And that would be a shame, since nothing would be more karmic than to have a TWU Local 234 member or someone close to a member die after his or her nurses decided to strike because they wanted more money and believed their greedy needs superseded any consequences of their actions. Is that so bad? I wonder how many people did not make it to the hospital to see a loved one in time during the ever important strike.