Strike Brings Transit to a Screeching Halt in Philadelphia

by | November 1, 2016

By Jason Laughlin

Despite last-minute negotiations and a visit from Democratic heavy-hitter Congressman Bob Brady, 4,738 transit workers walked off the job Monday night, beginning a strike that halted subways, trolleys and buses in Philadelphia.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority's three major mass transit modes in Philadelphia run 800,000 to 850,000 trips a day, serving hundreds of thousands of riders who will be forced to find other ways to travel the city Tuesday.

While the two parties still have a week to resolve their differences, a closely contested presidential campaign looms on Nov. 8 and the region is expected to be critical for both candidates. The possibility of a strike stretching to Election Day has prompted concern from Hillary Clinton's campaign, said Brady, D-Pa., during a visit shortly after 7 p.m. to the Sheraton at 17th and Race streets, where negotiations were held.

"Hillary Clinton's guy, Corey Dukes (director of the candidate's Pennsylvania campaign), had a little concern," Brady said.

The Philadelphia Board of Commissioners, which oversees elections in the city, said in 2009 a TWU strike overlapped with an election and didn't hurt turnout, but that was not an election where a president was being chosen.

"It's gonna hurt," Brady said on the possibility of the strike extending to Election Day. "It'll hurt."

SEPTA and Transportation Workers Union Local 234 were unable to resolve a host of issues by the midnight deadline when the union's contract expired. Union workers were unwilling to accept the possibility of health care hikes that could have boosted their contribution from $552 a year to up to $6,000 if they wanted to keep equivalent medical coverage, union representatives said. They also were unhappy about a pension cap at $50,000 for workers while managers' pensions had no cap at all.

Matters not related to dollars and cents were also in dispute. TWU members said SEPTA's break policies for vehicle operators barely left them enough time to use the bathroom between routes, and complained the nine hours of down time a worker must receive between shifts was not enough, forcing operators to drive vehicles while fatigued.

SEPTA, for its part, argued its $1.2 billion pension is only 62 percent funded and a substantial increase in pension benefits would make that disparity worse. It also said workers currently enjoy a "Cadillac" health care plan that costs them just $46 a month, and that work was already underway to adjust schedules.

(c)2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer