Strike! Regional Rail down

Posted: June 16, 2014

SEPTA's Regional Rail lines lay empty today.

And they'll stay that way for the foreseeable future, if union representatives are to be believed.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen announced late last night that their members are now on strike, effectively shutting down the lines for the 60,000 people they serve daily.

"There was no progress in these mediations," Arthur Davidson, general chairman for IBEW System Council No. 7, said last night. "We still haven't discussed substantive issues, and we're still talking about procedure . . . things aren't looking good."

As of 12:01 a.m. today, no trains will depart their initial terminal and any trains active last night when the announcement was made were tied down and secured after reaching their final destinations, according to Steve Bruno, vice president of the BLET.

It's the first strike of its kind since 1983, when Regional Rail workers walked the picket line for about four months.

In a statement released last night, SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said the transit authority offered to extend the negotiation deadline for two weeks, during which the wage increases offered to the unions, a key point in the dispute, would take effect.

The unions rejected that offer, Williams said, as well as another one that would’ve extended the deadline under the current pay rates.

The transit authority's bus, subway and trolley services will continue to run, because they fall under the Transport Workers Union Local 234, which isn't joining the walk-out

Bruno's union has been arguing with SEPTA over pay raises and pension-plan contributions since its contract lapsed in 2010. It's joined in that struggle with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has worked without a SEPTA contract since 2009.

The fight escalated this week, when SEPTA announced that it would implement wage increases for the unions effective 12:01 a.m. today when the current negotiation period ends.

The transit authority said it has the right to force those raises - an average of $3 per hour for IBEW and $2.64 per hour for the BLET - without an agreement through federal labor laws.

So the unions spent three hours yesterday morning attempting to hash things out with SEPTA, with a representative from the National Mediation Board in tow to (theoretically) ease talks.

They weren't successful: The discussions were halted, picking up again just before 8 p.m. last night at 2 Liberty Place in Center City.

"[SEPTA] didn't speak to anything substantive with respect to our dispute at hand, the economic issues," said Davidson, general chairman for IBEW's System Council No.7. "All they wanted to do was change the procedure with respect to going forward with the dispute."

Williams, the SEPTA spokeswoman, declined to comment on yesterday's talks, citing the National Mediation Board's confidentiality rules.

The "main sticking point" for the unions, according to Bruno and Davidson, is whether the raises offered to the two unions match the offer given to the Transport Workers Union, which represents more workers and generally sets the pattern for all other union deals.

"That pattern, the full value of it, hasn't been offered to us," Bruno said. "It includes not only the raises . . . but other things of economic value that we're entitled to."

Specifically, the two unions are asking for retroactive pay increases covering the time they've worked without contracts and an additional 3 percent increase, which they claim would cover pension payments and put them on a level field with the Transport Workers.

As the deadline loomed yesterday, there was talk of Gov. Corbett asking President Obama to call an emergency board that would require the unions to stay at work for about 200 days, Bruno said.

That idea was ultimately scrapped, as was a request by Corbett to extend negotiations for 14 days, according to Bruno.

"I'm skeptical any additional time will solve this dispute," Bruno said.

Jay Pagni, a spokesman for Corbett, said the governor, through the state Department of Transportation, reached out to the three parties, offering state "services and resources" to assist in the negotiations.

"He essentially asked them to help him understand the circumstances preventing a common agreement, and at the same time asked them to keep in mind the folks who rely on SEPTA every day," Pagni said.

Pagni said the governor will work with PennDOT in the wake of the strike, but wouldn't elaborate on what measures will be taken.

But Veronica Barnes knows what measures she'll have to take now that the picket lines have formed.

"I'll have to take a bus and then a subway to work, instead of just walking across the street from my house to the Regional Rail station," she said last night.

Barnes says she can't understand why it's so difficult for both sides to reach an agreement.

"I get that the economy is bad for everyone, but when you're inconveniencing everyone and [SEPTA] is coming to the table with their best offer, you have to negotiate," she said.

Kristen Stoltz, who'll now have to drive an additional 20 minutes from her home in Northeast Philly to catch the Market-Frankford Line into Center City, put it more succinctly:

"It just sucks - I might want a raise in my job, too, but my bitching about it doesn't affect thousands of people."

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