No Talks Planned as SEPTA Strike Remains Possible

Philly transit union says strike is "absolutely, positively our last option."

The head of the union representing Philadelphia bus, subway and trolley operators said Tuesday that a strike is not imminent, but he noted that stalled contract talks would not resume until transit officials provided key financial information.
Willie Brown, president of Transport Workers Union Local 234, said the public would get sufficient notice of a walkout, which he called "absolutely, positively our last option."

"We're not near that yet. There's no reason for a strike to occur," Brown said on a conference call with reporters.

A work stoppage at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority would halt about 900,000 daily trips in the city and suburbs.

With no schedule set for talks to resume, several local politicians have stepped in to encourage SEPTA and its union to reach a deal.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady met with TWU Tuesday morning to ask union officials to keep the lines of communication open, according to a spokesperson for the congressman.

Brady has taken an active role in union negotiations in the past, getting involved in the SEPTA contract talks in November 2009.

Taking a different approach, Pa. State Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (D - 181st) implored the transit agency to make the necessary concessions.

"During the last five years SEPTA has received over $600 million in state funds each year and approximately $200 million in federal funds annually. The public has stepped up and provided the requested revenue," Thomas said. "Now it's SEPTA's turn to step up and deal fairly with the riders and the workers -- no raise in fares and a good contract for workers."

The most recent strike, which lasted for six days in 2009, began with virtually no notice, and riders awoke to empty bus stops and locked subway entrances.

"I am urging all parties involved to return to the table, continue negotiating and reach an agreement that is fair to the workers, the riders and the system," Thomas said. "The last thing we need is a strike."

Deals for four bargaining units representing about 5,500 workers expired over the past three weeks. The two sides have said they were making progress up until Sunday, when the last contract expired and mediated negotiations broke off.
The main sticking points are wages, retirements and health care contributions, Brown said. The union will go back to the table after SEPTA fulfills its request for data on employee demographics, pension costs and medical claims, he said.
"We can't negotiate in the dark," Brown said.
SEPTA expects to send the statistics to Brown no later than the end of the week, agency spokeswoman Jerri Williams said.

 Employee wages and benefits account for about 70 percent of SEPTA's $1.3 billion operating budget this year. The average annual salary for a bus driver, including overtime, is about $65,000.
The agency said it offered employees a two-year contract with wage increases of 2 percent the first year and 3 percent in the second year, a boost over a previous offer of a 2.75 percent wage increase in the second year. But workers would have to spend an additional 1 percent of their wages on health care premiums.
Brown said the union asked for a 3.25 percent raise the first year, a 3 percent raise the second year and no increase in health care contributions.

While acknowledging that a work stoppage might not go over well with the public, Brown stressed the union is fighting for principles supported by the working class.
"Anytime that you're on strike and people are inconvenienced, you can expect people to not come out and support you verbally," Brown said. "(But) this is about everybody, so we have to take a stand."
SEPTA, the nation's sixth-largest transit operator, has annual ridership of about 337 million. Thirteen commuter train lines would still run in the event of a strike.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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