SEPTA's city workers say they'll work through contract expiration

Posted: March 16, 2014

The looming expiration of almost half of SEPTA's workers' contracts nearly put 825,000 weekday transit passengers in limbo at the start of the coming work week - but Transportation Workers Union Local 234's City Transit Division announced yesterday that its members plan to work without a contract instead of striking.

Local 234's city division consists of 4,700 operators and mechanics who make up nearly half of SEPTA's workforce. Their contract expired at 12:01 a.m. today.

Local 234 is also negotiating new contracts for SEPTA employees in the suburban Frontier and Red Arrow divisions, whose contracts expire the first week of April. If a work stoppage occurs then, it will involve all three TWU bargaining units.

Negotiations are centered on two key issues: pensions, which the union says are underfunded, and concerns about health care and taxes stemming from the Affordable Care Act.

"We would like to get a fair contract, secure funding for pensions and make sure that health-care costs aren't passed on to members," said Jamie Horwitz, a spokesman for the union. "SEPTA's finances are in good shape; we are not asking a lot."

SEPTA officials said employee wages and benefits are the largest operating expense, accounting for 70 percent of the budget. SEPTA's fiscal year 2014 operating budget totals $1.28 billion.

"We hope that we are going to continue being able to negotiate and reach an agreement that will be beneficial to SEPTA, union employees, riders and taxpayers," SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said.

SEPTA asked for a three-month extension to continue negotiations, but TWU officials said a lengthy negotiation is not in the best interest of union members or riders.

"We're willing to go the extra mile to reach a fair agreement," Local 234 President Willie Brown said. "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."

There is a history of strikes by SEPTA's union workers. The last, a strike by city transit workers in 2009, lasted six days.

"Our goal is to get a good contract without disrupting service to the riding public, but at the end of the day SEPTA must be willing to do the same," said Brown.

As of yesterday, there was no set date for continued negotiations. Horwitz said union members received an extensive proposal from SEPTA that has to be carefully reviewed before they consider heading to the bargaining table with officials again.

Although SEPTA hopes to negotiate a new contract without a work stoppage, the agency has prepared a contingency plan suggesting alternative routes for passengers in the event of a strike.

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