Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Transit Strike in Pittsburgh?

Hi there! This post is from March 2008. As of December 2008, a strike has been averted. For the latest info, check out the Labor posts here at Peak Direction.

The Tribune-Review has reported that the Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce is alerting its members to be ready for a possible Port Authority strike:
The Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce is warning its members to prepare for the possibility that labor strife could force a Port Authority shutdown this summer.

The chamber advised its members in a letter to have a plan ready if talks break down, cutting off bus and T service to 220,000 daily riders, and has scheduled a brainstorming session March 27.

WTAE story also. More fighting words between Onorato and ATU president Patrick McMahon from October 2007. And here comes my prediction: Onorato might want to not budge on cutting costs in a new contract, even if it means a crippling strike. It might be the political move that saves his career from the negative reaction to the drink tax. Yes, a strike would be awful and could kill any hopes of the Port Authority aspiring to serve more people. But I just do not see much sympathy for the union in this town given most people's opinion of the Port Authority. (Not properly counting what's in the fare box doesn't help.)

It's times like this where I feel so conflicted about the Port Authority. I want this town to have better transit. However, I also realize the Port Authority has many issues including labor costs and priorities such as the North Shore Connector. However, those who criticize the Port Authority are often the ones who want to cut its funding, restrict its growth, or privatize it. If the police force is doing a bad job, you don't cut their funding, but people see transit differently. The Port Authority needs more money to expand service and make this city truly world-class. Yes, reforms and oversight are needed. But you don't throw the buses out with the bathwater.

Some think that transit has to be 100% solvent, which bothers me to no end. The Interstate System isn't solvent. Our airport and airline system isn't solvent. But we pay for these things even if we don't use them because our economy and the well-being of our citizens depend on them. You don't expect the pipes in your house to be a money maker, you just want them to get things where they need to be.

So I truly hope a contract is settled and the Port Authority can continue running, but I believe the public would be on Onorato's side if push came to shove. Maybe I'm underestimating union solidarity in our steel town.

The last strike was in 1992, and lasted at least 26 days until a court forced the operators back to work. (Wow, that was the same year as the newspaper strike that killed the Pittsburgh Press and allowed the Tribune-Review to rise.) Read about it in the New York Times:

Transit Union Walks Out, And Pittsburghers Walk (3/17/92)
No Subway, No Buses, But Plenty of Sore Feet (4/4/92)
Pittsburgh Judge Orders End To 26-Day-Old Transit Strike (4/11/92)

Perhaps the only good that would come from a transit strike would be a feeling of bosses and car-drivers everywhere realizing "Wow, people really ride those buses." They'll realize when lower-income workers have to call in sick or quit their downtown job. They'll realize it when there's more cars on the Parkway East and Route 51. They'll realize it when parking is $30 downtown due to demand. They'll realize it when their workers are less productive because they had to walk 45 minutes to work. And those bars who abhor the drink tax will have less college students lining up at their doors. Sometimes people need a reminder.


  1. The job that Port Authority has done to vilify the union has been amazing. All the union has done is follow the word of its collectively bargained contracts, and has agreed to give things up in the past few negotiations. Can you imagine being in the situation in your job where you have to give up your benefits?

    Maybe the problem is that the Port Authority is so poorly managed that they can't even organize who's counting the farebox income. Blaming the union is a cop-out--it's management's job to manage, and it's obvious that they aren't doing that.

  2. A slight clarification: I realize in my writing that I blur the union and the Port Authority:

    "But I just do not see much sympathy for the union in this town given most people's opinion of the Port Authority."

    I think that the public will view any "reforming" and "cutting costs" as positive and Onorato will not budge one inch, and any union resistance to fight for fair pay and benefits will be construed as fighting reform. I just realized the sentence I quoted might not make too much sense.

  3. Anon 11:16:
    I don't think you get the point of the union issue. It isn't that the union doesn't follow the contract, it's that the contract is a joke. The bus drivers are the most highly paid in the country adjusted for the cost of living and they get sick time and vacation for 5 to 8 weeks off per year. That's what drives everyone nuts.

    "Has agreed to give things up in the past"? What a joke. They pay 1% of their salary to health care. Assuming they make $50,000, that means they only pay $42.50 a month for health care!!! If that's giving something up, I will do that too. I (and everyone else I know) pays about $300-$500 a month. If the union did that with 2700 employees, PAT would have another $10mil to $16mil a year. That's my drink tax right there!!! Of course in exchange the union would demand a 8% annual salary bump so there goes that.

    Brent is right. There will be no sympathy for the union in this mess. Look at the US Airways pilots, steelworker, steamfitters, and other unions. They don't have these benefits and PAT's union is making them look bad too. And Onorato is all about reforming PAT and these unions support him. He already had PAT's management take wage and benefit cuts last year. All he's doing is asking the union to do the same and they won't. He should keep the drink tax money until they do.

    PAT's union is going to be very lonely walking on the picket line.

  4. This is a great post, man. I really like your take on the possibility of this actually having a large impact on businesses, employees...

    Surely transit should be right up there with the fire department and cops...and those guys can't just up and strike right?

    This city sans transportation is going to be rough, particularly if the weather doesn't break a little. At least then we can take up bikes or walking.

  5. Fire them all and post adds in the paper the next day - Bus Drivers Wanted - $45,000 Salary - No Overtime, 401K and HSA Health Plan.

    There would be a line out the door of applicants...

    The Union needs to get over itself and realize that even in Allegheny County, the days of the gravy government job are coming to an end. THANK GOD!!!