Lord, please don’t let this strike last 44 days.
That’s how long the 1977 SEPTA strike lasted. SEPTA is the most strike-prone transit agency in the country. Its predecessor, the Philadelphia Transit Company, had a reputation for strikes, too. But why? What makes the members of TWU 234 such standouts?
Transportation scholars note that public transit agencies are woefully underfunded, and have been pretty much since the giddy-up. As Georgia Tech planning professor Alex Karner explains, private trolley companies chased profitability, but public transit agencies had to aspire to offer “some degree of social service.” Essentially, American urban public transit has never had enough resources for the task ahead of them. “It’s this feedback cycle where funding for transit declines, and then it’s just less convenient for folks to use it,” says Karner.
But Philly isn’t any different from a long list of American cities in this regard. What makes Philly unique is “the $64,000 question,” Michael Noda, the blogger behind Sic Transit Philadelphia, says in a FB chat.
“There is no real answer to this one, because the most common answer is ‘because TWU 234 has historically had a culture of militancy,’ and once you get into why that was, and why that’s survived, you get into all kinds of unprovable assertions,” he types.
Noda does think local views on organized labor could be a factor. “Philly has a self-image as a very pro-union city… There’s still strong support for, at minimum, their legal rights to fight their fight, to the fullest extent allowed under the law,” he continues. “So, even though the person on the street hates them right now, there’s no real appetite to, say, make transit strikes illegal.”
In the last 45 years, Local 234 has gone on strike 12 times. Between ’71 and ’81, the union walked out once every 2.5 years on average. Philadelphia Evening Bulletin archives offer a glimpse of these strikes of ’70s and early ’80s. Here’s what Philly transit strikes looked like back then.
The 1971 walkout lasted nine days. SEPTA succeeded in getting an injunction two days in, but union members pressed on, according to TWU 234 history. Then-Prez Dom DeClerico even wound up in prison for a bit.
Four years later, SEPTA workers went on strike again for 11 days in 1975. The union credits then-Mayor Frank Rizzo for effectively closing negotiations when he offered $7.5 million in additional city money.
The six-week 1977 strike, according to the Philly.com archives, resulted in SEPTA losing 10 percent of its ridership permanently. The AP reported that local businesses lost an estimated $1.7 million a day, according to the Chamber of Commerce. That’s roughly $6.8 million in 2016 dollars. This was the longest strike to date, closely followed, though, by a 40-day strike in 1998.
In 1981, the work stoppage lasted 19 days. The AP spoke to a SEPTA rider who couldn’t take it anymore:
For Laura Miller, a saleswoman in Wanamaker’s department store, the latest walkout was the last straw.
“I use SEPTA and I’ll never ride it again,” she said as she waited for a train. “I’d like to make a bomb and blow them all to kingdom come. I hate SEPTA with every ounce of energy I have, and I’m 106 pounds of trouble.”