When public unions punish the public

    At the start of every week, thousands of people buy SEPTA passes to get to work. Imagine their frustration and anger on Tuesday morning
    when they woke up to find zero buses, no running subways and useless passes in their hands.

    That’s no way to build labor solidarity says WHYY’s Chris Satullo in his weekly audio column Center Square.

    Listen: [audio: satullo20091108.mp3]

    My dad was a union president.

    In my home, growing up, we always looked for that union label on everything we bought. I spent many weekends at the basement ping-pong table, stuffing union flyers into envelopes.

    In my adult life, I’ve been mostly on the management side of the divide. But I retain a fundamental respect for the right of unions to fight for the interests of workers.

    That’s why the dumb stunt pulled this week by SEPTA’s transit union left me feeling more sad than mad.

    Whatever sympathy the residents of this blue-collar city might have had for the transit workers was forfeited by their union’s decision to go on strike in the dead of night Tuesday. The union gave no warning to the hundreds of thousands of workers who woke up to a nasty rush-hour surprise.

    That morning, during my WaWa coffee stop workers behind the counter vigorously debated the union’s move.

    Now WaWa clerks are not exactly the overdogs of American capitalism. But most of the clerks at my WaWa didn’t seem to be on the side of a union that had stuck it to working folks on a weekday.

    One clerk offered wan support for the bus drivers: “They’ve been working without a contract since spring.”

    “Hey, I’ve working without a contract since I was born,” another replied.

    That’s the heart of the problem. The lingering strength of an enfeebled union movement in America lies almost entirely in the public sector. And when public sector unions strike – when the garbage piles up, when the classrooms sit silent – its their fellow working stiffs that bear the brunt.

    This situation doesn’t exactly boost public support for unions. In the old days, if the auto workers struck a plant, it was the capitalist owner who had the most to lose. His customers could always walk across the street to buy from his competitor. That was the leverage.

    Public unions seem heedless of the perils of using public inconvenience as leverage. They seem ever more divorced from the realities of private sector employment, where furloughs, pay cuts and higher co-pays have long been glum facts of life. In their rhetoric, they can seem like people who just got out of time machine set to 1997.

    Government already gets a bad enough rap, much of it unfair. It doesn’t need additional body blows from clueless, arrogant public unions.

    For this chip off a union block, it’s a sad sight to see.

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