SEPTA workers on Sunday authorized a strike as they seek higher wages, better parental leave terms and financial assistance for families of workers who died due to COVID-19.
The strike authorization by the Transport Workers Union Local 234 does not necessarily mean that workers will definitely strike, but it does give them leverage as they negotiate a new contract. The current contract expires at midnight on Oct. 31.
"Today meant that 234 is standing together as one," Derrick Banks, a SEPTA bus operator, told NBC10. "You try to push us in the wrong direction, we have to push us back in the right direction and that's where we're headed."
The strike would affect buses, trolleys, the subway and elevated train lines in Philadelphia. It would not impact regional rail.
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“SEPTA has offered us lower wages than everyone else in the region, and we’re not going to accept lower wages and we’re not going to take that. You deserve more and your family deserves more,” Local 234 President Willie Brown said in a video to union members ahead of the strike authorization vote.
Negotiations for a new contract began back in July, and the transit agency has “slow-walked” talks, Brown said in a separate news release about the possibility of a strike.
In addition, the union is seeking enhanced safety measures, with Brown calling for more police officers across the transit system to protect both SEPTA workers and riders. In recent months and weeks, there have been high-profile attacks on SEPTA, including the beating of an employee and multiple sexual assaults of riders.
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In recent weeks, operator shortages have led to service delays across various SEPTA lines. Picketing workers would disrupt commutes for more people, including children who take SEPTA trains, buses and trolleys to get to and from school.
Riding SEPTA to school has become all the more important as the School District of Philadelphia experiences a bus driver shortage. In a letter to parents, Superintendent William Hite said nearly 60,000 students use SEPTA to get to school, meaning service interruptions “would have a devastating impact” and could force some or all schools to revert to 100% digital learning.
“While I respect the right of any union member to advocate for themselves, it is my greatest hope that this strike can be avoided so that we can continue to keep our schools open and best support the social, emotional and academic needs of our students without additional disruption,” Hite wrote.
For its part, SEPTA spokeswoman Elvira Méndez said the agency and Local 234 have had “productive” conversations. She added that SEPTA is “hopeful” an agreement can be reached without any service disruptions.
If an agreement is not reached, a strike could begin on Nov. 1.