Philadelphia transit employees will meet with city officials to negotiate a new contract as the Nov. 1 strike deadline looms, and the prospects of a full walk-out become a very real possibility.
The contract between workers and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transport Authority (SEPTA) expires at midnight Oct. 31 (Halloween). The two sides have been in talks for months in order to work out the details of a deal.
A major strike could effect voters on Election Day if the walkout runs past Nov. 8.
The Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents more than 5,000 workers at the SEPTA, voted overwhelmingly in favor of authorizing a strike during a meeting Oct. 16. A second vote took place on whether the union would allow the current contract to be extended in order to forestall a strike, which members struck down.
Union members already prepared signs in the event a deal isn’t reached before midnight Monday, Fox 29 reports.
“I’m not agreeing to anything that treats my people as second-class citizens,” said Willie Brown, president of Local 234. Referencing the ongoing talks with the city, Brown described it as “very slow,” and said that “the simplest things become big issues. It’s almost like it’s not negotiations.”
“We’re not looking at an extension, and we’re not interested in working without a contract,” Brown said in a statement.
The strike would affect city bus, trolley and subway lines, but would not affect regional rail lines and service in areas outside the city, according to a Philly.com report. Union officials are concerned with pension and health care proposals as well as what was described by the union head as “safety and fatigue issues.”
“We remain hopeful as we work to bargain an agreement in the best interest of our employees, riders and the public,” SEPTA said in a statement after the union voted to strike if no deal was passed by the Monday deadline. The transit agency also noted that strike authorization votes are not unusual, and remained optimistic that a deal would be reached.
SEPTA currently has a $1.2 billion pension obligation that is about 62 percent funded. Employee pensions are capped at $50,000. SEPTA workers can retire at any age after 30 years of service. Employees, with overtime, average $68,100 a year according to Philly.com.
Members ratified a two-year contract in 2014 that averted a walkout by bus drivers, subway and trolley operators, cashiers and mechanics.
SEPTA employees went on strike in 2009, which disrupted service and caused major headaches and massive traffic backups for area commuters. Then-Philadelphia Mayor Micheal Nutter said the city was “ambushed” by the 2009 strike. “You can’t put a dollar value on the disruption and aggravation,” he told reporters at the time. He described the strike as “unfair to the citizens of the city.”
Local 234 is a chapter of the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU), which is a union founded in 1914 by subway workers in New York City. Currently, the union represents 116,000 transport workers nationwide, and is an affiliate of the American Federation of Laborers and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). Philadelphia’s transport workers established Local 234 in 1944, which today represents about 5,000 SEPTA employees.
A strike could become a serious disruption to the Philadelphia region, which is home to 3.9 million people. SEPTA is the fifth largest transit system in the country, with nearly 300 stations, 196 routes, 2,300 vehicles (buses, trolleys, vans) and over 450 miles of track.
The potential strike comes just a week before Election Day, which is Nov. 8.
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