Strike shuts down Philly transit system a week from Election Day

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Passengers boarding a SEPTA train in Philadelphia

Philadelphia public transport workers went on strike just past midnight Monday — raising concerns over voting problems with Election Day just a week away.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, known as SEPTA, said the strike would affect all subway, buses and trolley routes in the city. About 800,000 people use the city’s transit system daily, said Andrew Busch, a SEPTA spokesman.

SEPTA’s Regional Rail commuter service, which covers a limited area, will be the only option for public transport in and around the city, the agency said.

Issues under negotiation between SEPTA and the Transit Workers Union Local 234 included pension reform, health care and wage improvements, the union said on its web site. The deadlock, though, appears to be over pension payments.

Union says it wants talks to continue

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported a visit from Democratic Pennsylvania Congressman Bob Brady couldn’t avert the strike.

TWU Local 234 leader Willie Brown said talks will continue — though the two sides are said to be far apart on the issues, CNN-affiliate WPVI reported.

“An inside source says it all comes down to pensions. Apparently management gets a pension on full pay, while union workers get a pension on partial pay,” WPVI reported.

The union in a newsletter posted on its website said: “Since negotiations broke down, the Union has been trying to get SEPTA back to the table to discuss economic issues, such as pension reform, health care and wage improvements.”

The union added: “However SEPTA is refusing to present a reasonable economic package. Instead, they are opposed to any and all improvements in our pension, while pushing a hard line on health care concessions, including an inferior health care plan with the option of maintaining our current benefits, but at the cost of over $400 a month for family coverage.”

Existing contract expired

The union said some “issues involve contractual provisions the union wants enforced, but SEPTA managers think they can ignore the contract and do as they please.”

The contract between the transit agency and TWU expired at midnight on Monday, SEPTA said.

Among other issues, TWU members said SEPTA’s break policies for vehicle operators left them little time to use the bathroom between routes, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The newspaper also said that TWU members complained that the nine hours of down time wasn’t enough, and forced them to drive vehicles while they were tired.

A union representative could not be reached early Tuesday.

SEPTA hopeful of agreement before Election day

SEPTA, in a statement, said it was “hopeful that a tentative agreement will be reached before Election Day.”

“If we foresee an agreement will not come to pass, SEPTA intends to enjoin the strike for November 8 to ensure that the strike does not prevent any voters from getting to the polls and exercising their right to vote.”

SEPTA said Brown “walked away from a contract offer that would have provided his members pay raises, enhanced pension benefits, maintained health care coverage levels and continued job security, while also remaining fair and affordable for the taxpayers and riders who fund SEPTA.”

In anticipation of the strike, SEPTA released a contingency plan that included additional Regional Rail trains. The more than 4,700 union members who are part of the strike work in the City Transit Division, SEPTA said.

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