Willie Brown, president of TWU Local 234

When the president of the city division of the SEPTA union led a six-day strike in 2009, he referred to himself as “the most hated man in Philadelphia.”

Safe to say that this week, Willie Brown might be just that… again.

Brown is the hard-headed, strike-vowing, trolley-driving president of Transit Workers Union Local 234, the union of SEPTA workers that’s been on strike since Tuesday, effectively shutting down all forms of public transit within the city of Philadelphia and snarling transportation across the region. And last time he led a strike of these proportions, he was ousted by the membership of the union he now, again, leads.

Here’s a look at Brown and how he’s led SEPTA now to two significant strikes:

Straight outta Southwest Philly

Southwest Philly resident Willie Brown has apparently wanted to be a union president his entire life. Sure, he’s said before, he loves driving a trolley on route 36. But getting that job in 1987 was the key to becoming president of TWU Local 234. Two years ago when the Local was considering striking, Brown was interviewed by an Inquirer reporter, and they had this exchange:

Q: What did you want to be when you grew up?

A: A union president. When I was a little boy, a guy took me to a union function; it was a Christmas party. From that point forward, I wanted to be in a union.

Q: So, even before you became a trolley driver for SEPTA, you wanted to be TWU Local 234’s leader?

A: Absolutely. I didn’t come here to operate a trolley. That was my vehicle to get to the presidency. I wanted to be president from day one.

In 2008, Brown was first elected president of Local 234 after serving as executive vice president, becoming the leader of a 5,000-member union, managing millions of dollars a year in dues and leading negotiations with SEPTA management. He’s always said that he doesn’t want to go on strike, but that sometimes, they need to go on strike.

“Once you go on strike,” he told the Inky in that 2014 interview, “you don’t ever make up what you lost. But you lose more by not striking.”

In 2009 as the last major SEPTA strike was wrapping up, Inquirer reporter Jeff Gammage described Brown assmart, articulate, and pugnacious — and has a temper.” That’s because during that strike, Brown assigned plenty of blame. He called former Mayor Michael Nutter “Little Caesar.” He said the media coverage of the strike was “misleading” and “totally, totally false.” 

And through it all, he’s cultivated an image as a fighter.

The 2009 strike

SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line
SEPTA’s Market-Frankford Line Credit: Screenshot via YouTube

Brown had been president of the union for just 14 months when workers went on strike in 2009. This was nothing new. SEPTA workers had been on strike many times before, as recently as 2005.

What’s interesting about that 2009 strike — which began on Election Day — is that it was the same sticking point that the union is facing now: Pensions. Brown was furious that SEPTA management didn’t have a cap on their pensions, but workers in the union did. At the time, Gov. Ed Rendell slammed Brown and the union for not accepting a five-year plan that would have included a signing bonus, a 2.5 percent raise in the second year and 3 percent raises in the next three years.

“I understand I’m the most hated man in Philadelphia right now,” Brown said at the time, according to newspaper archives. “I have no problem with that.”

After about a week, the union and management had come to an agreement. They ended up taking that deal. But apparently, the rank-and-file members of the union weren’t so happy with Brown.

The ouster — and the comeback

Ten months after calling his first strike, Brown lost re-election to be president of the union to John Johnson Jr., a former bus driver who promised the union that he would forge a better relationship between workers and management. Brown was defeated 1,915 to 1,672.

According to The Philadelphia Daily News, Brown claimed there was “outside interference,” saying “SEPTA had a lot of interest in the outcome of this election.” He told the newspaper that the members didn’t really appreciate the work he’d done in securing a new contract, but Johnson said members were just frustrated with the leadership and how it handled the strike.

“Our members wanted to move in a new direction,” Johnson told the Daily News. “They didn’t like the fact we went on strike last year, they didn’t like how we were portrayed in the media and we suffered the repercussions of that.”

Brown was down, but certainly not out. In 2013, he was voted back in as president of Local 234, telling the Inquirer in 2014:I do the best I can and let the chips fall where they may. I don’t cry over spilt milk.” A major strike was averted in 2014 when he was back for his first contract negotiation after being tossed by the membership. Brown easily won re-election last month.

This time around

SEPTA's bus, trolley and subway operators in Philadelphia went on strike Nov. 1, 2016.
SEPTA’s bus, trolley and subway operators in Philadelphia went on strike Nov. 1, 2016. Credit: Dan Levy / Billy Penn

Brown vowed a strike if the union didn’t get a fair contract once he was returned to power atop the union.

“Once we’re on strike, we’re on strike,” he told Plan Philly in October. “There will be no going out on strike and then coming back to work.”

Now, the city is enduring day three of a total city transportation shut-down. The sticking points remain the same: The union doesn’t want a cap on their pensions of SEPTA management doesn’t have one on theirs. If the strike continues into next week, it could interfere with a presidential Election Day when Pennsylvania arguably matters more than it has in at least a decade.

SEPTA’s accusing the union leadership — AKA Brown — of not participating in “good-faith” negotiations. Late last night, the SEPTA board chairman released a statement saying: “SEPTA negotiators have been working tirelessly to get a deal done, and we’re asking TWU leadership to do the same -– for the sake of their members, and the people who rely on them every day to safely get them where they need to go.”

Safe to say at least Brown is in for the long haul.

“Once you go on strike, you don’t ever make up what you lost,” he told The Inquirer in 2014. “But you lose more by not striking.”

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.