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Derailed transit-union chief blames SEPTA

Derailed transit-union chief blames SEPTA

The outgoing president of Transport Workers Union Local 234 yesterday blamed "outside interference" by SEPTA for his failed re-election bid.

"SEPTA had a lot of interest in the outcome of this election," said Willie Brown, who was ousted Friday night by a vote of 1,915 to 1,672, less than a year after he had negotiated a lucrative contract for SEPTA's 5,000 transit workers.

The new president is John Johnson Jr., a former bus driver who is now a track maintainer and who earned a business degree from Temple in 2005.

In interviews yesterday, the two men had sharply divergent views on why Brown lost.

Brown said members did not fully appreciate his effort in winning the contract. But Johnson said that Brown had become too insular.

Brown cast his opponent as an "intellectual" who would be more willing to "sit down and talk" with management. By contrast, he styled himself as "old school" and a "fighter."

SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch declined to comment on Brown's assertions.

SEPTA general manager Joseph M. Casey said in a statement that the "coming months are going to be critical to the financial stability" of the transit agency as state government debates long-term transportation funding.

Casey added that management hoped that the new union leadership would be an "active partner."

Johnson promised a leadership style different from Brown's.

"I'm willing to sit down and talk with anybody who will help my members," Johnson said. "There's nothing wrong with that."

Johnson said that modern-day labor leaders have to be knowledgeable on financial and other issues affecting their members, and need to be at the table with management at all times, not just when labor contracts are negotiated.

Brown's call for a strike on Election Day last November at 3 a.m. left thousands of SEPTA riders scrambling to find a way to work, angered the public, ticked off politicians and even left his own members in the lurch.

Asked if the decision had come back to bite him, Brown replied: "I had a job to do. When you're negotiating a new contract, it's like going to war."

Johnson said that he planned to reach out to Brown, whom he described as a "good guy who tried to do his best."

Brown, a former trolley driver, became president of Local 234 in 2008. He said that he was mystified that members would reject a leader who had won them a fat contract.

Brown's team negotiated a five-year deal last November that included SEPTA giving each member a $1,250 "signing bonus," a 2.5 percent wage hike in the contract's second year and a 3 percent raise in each of the final three years.

The contract also called for minimal contributions by members to their health-care and pension plans.

"I would have thought that's what [the rank and file] wanted," Brown said. "I took the bull by the horns and carried the day."

But Johnson said that the election was as much about perceptions as it was a referendum on the contract.

"Our members wanted to move in a new direction," Johnson said. "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."

Read more: http://www.philly.com/dailynews/local/20100927_Derailed_transit-union_chief_blames_SEPTA.html#ixzz10kJFisha
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