Will Septa Union Walk Or Still Talk? 'Willing To Work' Past Pact Deadline

Posted: March 14, 2001

SEPTA and its largest union met for several hours of negotiations yesterday, but made little progress in drawing up a new contract to replace the labor pact that expires at midnight tonight.

But the feeling in City Hall is that the Transport Workers Union, Local 234, will not call an immediate strike if a contract is not completed by the deadline.

As the city and school district prepare to release plans today to deal with a possible SEPTA strike, some officials are publicly and privately predicting no citywide transit walkout this year.

Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr., chairman of Council's committee on public transportation and utilities, said the word spreading through City Hall is "both sides might be willing to work through the deadline."

Goode said SEPTA and the union recognize a strike would hurt the city's economy and the 500,000 passengers who use the transit system in the city.

Local 234 has gone on strike in the last two contract negotiations; a 40-day strike in 1998 and a two-week walkout in 1995.

This year, health-care issues monopolize the negotiations.

Yesterday's talks focused on prescription drug plans, according to Harry Lombardo, the trustee leading Local 234.

SEPTA wants the union's 4,700 operators and mechanics to pay for cost increases in that plan and address other health-care issues.

Lombardo said the proposed increases in union payments for health care would wipe out wage increases in the three-year pact now being negotiated.

"Health care is a strike issue for our members," Lombardo said. "We have given up wages over decades. In lieu of wages, we have placed money in health and welfare for our membership. We're not getting a free ride here. We paid for that."

Lombardo said he did not know if a deal could be reached by the deadline. He refused to say if the contract would be extended, and last night he said he felt "increasingly pessimistic" and planned a meeting with his strike captains at 6 tonight.

He complained about what he said was a slow negotiating pace.

Lombardo suggested SEPTA holds back in negotiations until the last minute to keep the union from trying to change the deal in its favor late in the game.

"This is nothing new to us," he said. "They like to play it close to the vest until the last possible moment. This union is ready to make a deal right now. We are not looking to get cute. We don't have to play games."

SEPTA Assistant General Manager Frances Egan yesterday continued her efforts to keep a calm tone around the negotiations.

"In the last 36 hours of something like this, it just gets very tough," Egan said. "Emotions are running high. Things can get tense."

SEPTA started the negotiations awkwardly on Jan. 31 when General Manager Jack Leary used Viagra, the drug used to treat impotence, as an example of increasing prescription drug costs.

Leary told the Daily News that Viagra is the fourth-most commonly prescribed drug for Local 234 members. The top three drugs are used to treat ulcers and high cholesterol levels.

The Viagra example outraged Local 234 members.

Leary has kept a low profile since then, not appearing at press conferences this week to discuss the negotiations.

Egan, who three times yesterday described the talks as "professional and business-like," would not say what issues SEPTA and the union were negotiating.

"All issues are on the table," she said. "Health care is one of the issues on the table."

Egan also refused to say if a contract extension is coming.

"At this point, everyone is focused on that deadline," she said. "We'll continue to try to use that as our goal to try to get done by the contract deadline. Unless the union authorizes a strike, operations and services will continue as normal."

State Department of Labor mediators visited the negotiations, held at the Wyndham Franklin Plaza hotel in Center City, but were not involved in the talks, SEPTA and the union said.

Mayor Street yesterday said he did not know if SEPTA and the union will work through the deadline. He expects to be briefed on negotiations today.

A Local 234 strike would halt service on all buses, trolleys and subways in the city. With 500,000 riders taking about 875,000 one-way trips on those routes, the city accounts for 84 percent of SEPTA's daily business.

Suburban buses would still operate because the contracts for their operators and mechanics do not expire until next month.

SEPTA's Regional Rail trains also would still be running.

The 169,000 one-way trips on those suburban bus and train routes make up 16 percent of SEPTA's daily business. *

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