SEPTA union: No strike for at least 3 weeks

Posted: March 16, 2014

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 12:01 a.m. Saturday 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.

Union president Willie Brown said Friday in a letter to SEPTA that the union would give up its right to strike if SEPTA would agree to submit the union's latest offer to final and binding arbitration. SEPTA declined.

"We prefer to discuss our issues at the bargaining table rather than through arbitration," SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said.

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 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 the 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 contract-expiration deadline approached with its largest union, representing about half of SEPTA's 9,400 workers.

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 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.

This time, the contract with city SEPTA workers expired 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.

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