SEPTA Workers Walk Off the Job

Talks break down in early morning hours, strike took effect at 3 a.m.

SEPTA's largest union has gone on strike after talks broke down with the transportation authority early Tuesday morning leaving hundreds of thousands of residents out in the cold without a way to work and school.

SEPTA urged riders to consult the SEPTA Strike Guide for how to navigate the shutdown. Riders can also call SEPTA customer service at 215-580-7800.

Reps for the Transport Workers Union, Local 234 walked out of negotiations just after midnight after almost a week of talks. Workers took to the picket lines at 3 a.m.

The strike virtually paralyzes transport within the city of Philadelphia idling all city buses and trolleys, the Market-Frankford El and Broad Street Subway as well as its Frontier Bus Lines, which serve Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties.

Most of the system's 810,000 riders rely on those modes of transport to get to work and school, the authority said. The Regional Rail, Suburban Transit, Paratransit and LUCY lines will continue to operate. SEPTA officials said additional service may be added to certain Regional Rail lines, but they warn riders to purchase tickets early as crowds are expected to form.

"It's going to be chaos," Gov. Ed Rendell said of the morning rush. "It's irresponsible of the union to walkout at 3 a.m. and not give the riding public the ability to make plans."

"We can't allow SEPTA to hide behind the economy for not giving us a fair contract," said Local 234 pres Willie Brown. "We're gonna be out here as long as it takes to get a fair contract."

Rendell called SEPTA's last offer a "good contract" and said SEPTA management worked hard to stave off a service disruption. He felt the union is not taking the current economic climate into consideration related to the offers given.

If you're hitting the roads during the hold out, get the latest traffic conditions at the NBCPhiladelphia Traffic Center.

The union voted last Sunday to walk off the job if an agreement with the transit authority wasn't reached by the end of last week. That deadline was extended over the weekend due to the World Series.

A strike had seemed to be all but a distant memory after Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, Pa. Gov. Ed Rendell and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady joined the discussions this weekend. Both sides were said to be "making progress" as late as Monday afternoon -- resolving one of the union's demands.

"This is outrageous action," said mayor Michael Nutter. "It is unfair to the citizens of this city and the riding public to take this kind of action…after literally 14 hours of talks."

Nutter said SEPTA's offer "far exceeds" any offers the city was entertaining. "We cannot understand what this is really about, but it cannot be about the things that we were talking about here today."

"I'm accusing them of fudging the numbers," Brown said of SEPTA's pension contributions. The union says the proposed 1.5 percent increase to the pension will mostly allow the authority to make up for deferred payments.

More than 5,000 bus drivers, subway and trolley operators and mechanics have been working without a contract since March 15. They are hoping for increased wages, better pension benefits and guaranteed job security.

SEPTA drivers and operators earn $14.54 to $24.24 an hour, and reach top pay after four years. Mechanics make $14.40 to $27.59 an hour, SEPTA said. Their former contract had a no-layoff provision.

Union workers, who earn an average $52,000 a year, are seeking an annual 4 percent wage hike and want to keep the current 1 percent contribution they make toward the cost of their health care coverage.

SEPTA was offering an 11.5 percent wage increase over five years, with no raise in the first year, and increases in workers' pensions, according to SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney.

"For the life of me I can't believe the TWU walked away from that offer," said SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey.

"I hope the public understands this is not only a fight for us, it's a fight for working class people," Brown said. "At some point and time we have to draw the line and stop letting big business rape the working class man and woman."

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