SEPTA union: No strike for at least 3 weeks after contract expires

By Paul Nussbaum, The Philadelphia Inquirer
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

March 14--SEPTA riders won't have to worry about the possibility of a transit strike for at least three weeks.

Leaders of Transport Workers Union Local 234 said Friday that Philadelphia bus drivers, subway and trolley operators, and maintenance workers will remain on the job despite the expiration at midnight of their labor contract.

Suburban contracts expire during the first week of April, and "if a work stoppage becomes necessary," it will happen after those contracts expire, the TWU said in a statement.

The union rejected SEPTA's request for a three-month extension of the existing contracts.

"We're willing to go the extra mile to reach a fair agreement," said union president Willie Brown. "We're not willing to sign on to a lengthy contract extension or make hasty decisions having a long-term effect on our members' family finances."

Brown said outstanding issues include underfunding of employees' pension fund, rising health-insurance costs, unfair discipline procedures, and inappropriate use of surveillance cameras.

The union's announcement came hours after SEPTA laid out its contingency plans for a strike, as the midnight contract-expiration deadline approached with its largest union, representing about half of SEPTA's 9,400 workers.

And in Harrisburg, state Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery) drafted a proposed bill to prohibit strikes by SEPTA workers.

No bargaining talks were held Friday. SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said union negotiators declined to attend a scheduled session on Friday, but TWU spokesman Jamie Horwitz said there were no negotiations scheduled for Friday.

Negotiations would resume soon, Horwitz said, and "we're very committed to getting this done, and done soon."

"We have had no indication that there is going to be a work stoppage," Williams said. "We remain hopeful that we will be able to have an agreement . . . without a work stoppage."

The last strike by SEPTA workers, in 2009, came seven months after the contract expired.

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This time, the contract with city SEPTA workers expired at midnight Friday, several weeks before similar contracts with suburban bus drivers and mechanics expire. The last of those contracts expires at 12:01 a.m.April 7, and no strike will occur before that, TWU officials said.

TWU leaders have told members to prepare for a strike, citing SEPTA proposals to reduce the authority's contributions to employees' pension plans, and to require higher employee contributions for health insurance.

"The union will never agree to any such reduction in pension benefits," Local 234 leaders wrote in a March 3 newsletter to TWU members. "As president Willie Brown told SEPTA at the bargaining table, the authority's chances of getting such outrageous concessions are 'as likely as a fish drowning.' "

In a letter last week to Mayor Nutter, City Council members, county commissioners and the region's Congressional delegation, SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey downplayed the likelihood of a strike.

"Although local media is reporting a work stoppage is possible, the Authority plans to continue productive and good faith discussions with TWU Local 234's leadership," Casey wrote.

Although SEPTA officials won't say what they are offering in terms of wage and benefit increases, the authority's budget assumes annual increases of 3 percent for labor costs through 2019.

The base salary for new SEPTA bus drivers is $33,887, and drivers with four or more years of experience are paid $55,620 a year. Including overtime pay, on average, a TWU member makes $64,847 a year, Williams said.

SEPTA's contingency plan for a strike focuses on shifting riders to Regional Rail trains, which will continue to operate because their crews are members of other unions.

Management employees have been trained to help collect fares and aid riders if there is a strike by bus and subway operators, Williams said.

"We will have lines, and people will be confused," Williams said. "But we hope we don't have to put this into effect."

In Harrisburg, Harper's proposal to ban strikes by SEPTA workers was similar to a bill she introduced in 2009, just after SEPTA's last strike. That bill did not make it out of committee, but Harper said she believes public and legislative attitudes have changed.

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"They are essential workers," Harper said of SEPTA employees. "They should stay on the job and work it out."

TWU spokesman Horwitz said Harper's proposal was "ill-conceived" and could jeopardize federal funding for SEPTA. Federal transit law requires the continuation of any collective bargaining rights that were in place when the employer started receiving federal funds.

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