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Contract that ended the SEPTA strike may not get union approval

A contract that ended a weeklong transit strike in Philadelphia is scheduled to be approved Friday night by the Transport Workers Union, but the labor group's president expressed concern that an opposing faction within the union could derail the agreement.

"I think it's going to be a close vote from people I talk to," said Willie Brown, president of TWU Local 234, in a Thursday morning interview. A rejected contract would mean more talks, not a strike.

Later Thursday, Brown said in an emailed statement that he believed the union had enough votes to pass the contract, but was concerned low turnout could affect the results.

"I think we negotiated a good agreement and I believe that the majority of our members feel the same way, but just like the presidential election 10 days ago, it all comes down to whether our members come out to vote," Brown said.

"As the person who negotiated the contract —and experienced first-hand the difficulties we faced— I know the agreement is a step in the right direction," he wrote. "If you saw SEPTA's offer prior to the strike, you would have tossed it in the trash can."

If the union rejects the contract, though, that doesn't mean a strike would resume, he said.

"We would have to go back to the table and see if we can rearrange some things and go from there," Brown said.

From Nov. 1 to the predawn hours of Nov. 7, about 4,700 TWU members walked away from their jobs at SEPTA. The strikers included the operators for every trolley, bus, and subway in the city and it brought mass transit to a standstill.

At a meeting Thursday, SEPTA's board of directors authorized the chairman, Pasquale Deon, to give the contract its final approval pending the union ratification. SEPTA declined to comment on the union's internal debate over the contract.

The union vote will be at 30 polling places around the city from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Friday. Members will vote on pieces of paper and the results should be available by 9 p.m., Brown said.

The contract has not yet been made public and SEPTA has not disclosed its full cost. The raises, along with pension improvements, will increase the cost of the union contract by $146 million over the five years, according to a union newsletter.

SEPTA has said that the new contract would be covered with money available in its existing 10-year budget plan and that no additional public funds or fare increases would be required.

In fiscal 2016, SEPTA budgeted $661.8 million for labor and fringe benefits for the transit division. The budgeted amount for fiscal 2017 was $703.4 million.

The wage increases should be viewed in the context of the whole contract, Brown said. The contract got workers the maximum available within SEPTA's budget constraints, he said.

"I'm telling them that's what SEPTA said is all they had," he said.

This story was updated to correct the time of the union voting.