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In an anticipated but nonetheless still impressive action, President Barack Obama used his constitutionally-granted power as chief executive of the United States on Saturday to thwart the SEPTA regional rail strike. Regional rail operations had ceased early Saturday morning — and then resumed early Sunday, only affecting weekend riders. Had the strike continued into the work week, SEPTA estimates that 127,000 commuters would have been affected.

The President is forcing SEPTA’s locomotive operators and conductors back on the job by compelling both the regional rail workers’ unions and SEPTA management into binding arbitration. Writing for Bloomberg, Scott Moritz and Margaret Talev say that “Obama’s order…creates a Presidential Emergency Board” which “restarts labor talks and train service… after union workers and transit officials… failed to reach a contract agreement.”

American history repeatedly demonstrates the authority of the nation’s chief executive to intervene in labor disputes. President Ronald Reagan famously ushered in a more labor-hostile milieu in America back in 1981 when he busted Patco, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (no, not our PATCO). Reagan threatened to fire all 13,000 strikers; he fulfilled his promise for those who refused to heed his warning, too.

Before that, President Harry Truman, a Democrat, threatened in 1946 to draft into the army striking railroad workers. PBS’s American Experience says that when railroad workers ignored his order compelling strikers back to work,  Truman asked Congress for “permission to draft striking railroad workers into the military to force them back to work. Just after he had made his request, Truman received a note. The strike had ended… ‘on terms proposed by the president.’”

In contrast to the grave actions of Reagan or Truman, though, Obama’s order this weekend is actually what labor wanted in the first place. In fact, Bloomberg reports that “Stephen Bruno, a national vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen… said it was unfortunate that [Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett] waited so long” to request Obama’s intervention into the dispute, because “the unions would prefer to use to binding arbitration.”

Obama’s move forces SEPTA management to the bargaining table more than it compels workers to negotiate over what the union feels is owed backpay for working without a new contract for years. Based upon the union’s reaction, it seems that workers had wanted federal intervention all along. Moreover, Obama’s order for arbitration comes just months after his similar intervention in a  dispute involving the Long Island Rail Road.

In unrelated but still interesting labor news, Pennsylvania State Senator Scott Wagner (R-York) has apologized for recently comparing mandatory union dues to the authoritarian policies of Adolf Hitler and Vladimir Putin. PennLive.com reports that Wagner said this month on the floor of the Pennsylvania State Senate that “unions are about power and control, and there are two things that I want to remember about power and control: There was a gentleman by the name of Hitler and a gentleman by the name of Putin, who is across the ocean, about power and control.”

 

About The Author

Contributing columnist

Josh Kruger is an award-winning writer and commentator in Philadelphia. His @PhillyWeekly column, “The Uncomfortable Whole,” took the 2014 First Place Spotlight Award for weekly newspaper commentary from the Society of Professional Journalists and the 2014 Second Place Award for weekly newspaper commentary in the United States and Canada from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. He also blogs daily for PW on various topics including queer culture and news, mass transit, politics, crime, drugs, HIV/AIDS, civil liberties, activism, media and everything else Philly.

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