The Public Purpose
Number 22 - July 1998

Rider and Taxpayer Rights
Cradle of Liberty No More: The Philadelphia Transit Strike

This op-ed piece was accepted for publication by the Philadelphia Daily News on 7 July 1998. Shortly thereafter (9 July) the subject transit strike was settled, and the op-ed was thus not published.

It was 222 years ago in Philadelphia that the ideal of government as the servant of the people rather than the powerful was born. Unrelated as it may seem, the SEPTA strike demonstrates how far we have drifted from the ideal

One of the principal issues in the strike is "management rights" --- the right to organize working arrangements to obtain the greatest amount of service in exchange for the fares and subsidies paid by the people. This is not a dispute between labor and management, rather the opposing parties are labor and the public. Indeed, "management rights" is a misnomer. They are public rights --- the riders and taxpayers have a right to services and fares that correspond to the level of funding, and they are not receiving it. When SEPTA workers are paid more than the going rate, SEPTA is less productive and the people are denied their rights to a full return. Within the bounds of the labor laws that protect all workers from overly burdensome or unsafe working practices, SEPTA's responsibility is to minimize costs and fares and maximize service for the riders.

Make no mistake about it --- up to this point SEPTA has served its powerful unions before the public. Employee compensation has risen to double the rates at comparable union jobs in the private sector. And the gap between average SEPTA pay and that of the average rider is just as large. SEPTA's excessively high labor costs mean that less transit service is provided at fares that are higher than necessary. In response, fewer people use SEPTA services. And the periodic strikes don't help. All of this combines with other factors to encourage Philadelphians to abandon the city. The SEPTA story is not unique; indeed the story is the same in other large US cities.

Philadelphia and other America cities need transit systems that carry more people, not less. This requires that they be servants of the people, not the powerful. The same is true of other public services in which unions extract more than their fair share at the expense of the people. It is time for a new American revolution in public services, one that affirms the ideal of government as the servant of the people. What better place for it to start than Philadelphia.

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