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Timing is everything in the waltz of a SEPTA strike

No one knows yet when the waltz that is the SEPTA strike, with its classic spins and turns, will come to an end, but in this dance, as in all management labor disputes, timing matters.

So, whether it's  transit workers striking a week before a critical presidential race, or orchestra musicians tuning out minutes before the opening-night gala, or thousands of university faculty members leaving their classrooms midsemester,  the timing is strategic and well-thought-out -- on both sides.

Tuesday morning, just after midnight, Transit Workers Union Local 234, representing almost 5,000 SEPTA workers, made good on its hard deadline to go on strike if an agreement between the transit authority and transit union couldn't be reached.

"Economic pressure is all about leverage," said management lawyer John A. DiNome, a partner at Reed Smith LLP. And leverage, union and management lawyers and officials said, depends heavily on timing.

Two points about the SEPTA timing: TWU Local 234 stayed firm to its pledge to walk out if no agreement was reached by the 12:01 a.m. deadline. And, the deadline was just eight days before one of the most hotly contested presidential races in recent history.

"The union knows it has tremendous leverage," said DiNome's partner, Michael Jones, another management lawyer at Reed Smith. "To the extent Pennsylvania is in play in this election, Philadelphia is a significant Democratic voting base. There is a Democratic governor and a Democratic mayor. The union knows that the strike is not going to [last until next] Tuesday, and SEPTA knows that too. That will put pressure on SEPTA to cave by Tuesday."

The timing didn't please U.S. Rep Bob Brady (D., Phila.), who has stepped in to resolve many a strike, including the last SEPTA walkout, in 2009.

"The thing that concerns me a little bit is they took the vote, a strike vote, and they also took a vote not to extend. That's not a good idea," Brady said. "That's a threat. You should never limit yourself to have a deadline like that. I'd rather they didn't do that."

In the dance of strikes, the decision to stick to a firm deadline is part of the strategy, experts agreed.

"If the union grants an extension, management might take it as a signal that the union doesn't have the strength," said lawyer Michael J. Wietrzychowski, a partner at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP, who represents management. "A firm deadline is a strong signal that the union means business."

"Oftentimes there is a tactical advantage depending on the industry," said Robert O'Brien, a longtime labor lawyer and a partner at O'Brien, Belland & Bushinsky. He has represented casino workers, communications workers, and Atlantic City's government employees. Casino workers in New Jersey can have their most effective strikes in the summer, but in Las Vegas, it's better for workers to strike in the spring and fall, during the convention season.

The dockworkers' unions "like to strike later in the year, when [Christmas] shipments are starting to come into the ports," he said.

Union lawyer Stuart Davidson, a partner at Willig, Williams & Davidson, said his firm helped shepherd the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties through its recent strike. The faculty set a 5 a.m. Oct. 19 deadline after the faculty had worked for more than a year without a contract.

Partly, Davidson said, the union decided to wait for a new, more union-friendly state administration. The midsemester date gave the faculty time to return to campus, make strike preparations, and build alliances, while still providing weeks to make up classes by semester's end after a settlement.

Bill Cruice, the executive director at the Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals, said his union favors two-day sample strikes. The quick strikes give management a taste of what a walkout might be like and also help union leaders gauge internal support.

A popular time for these strikes? "Thanksgiving and Black Friday," Cruice said. "A lot of time nurses have a hard time getting Thanksgiving off. So, if they are going to lose money, they may as well get some benefit – staying home and having Thanksgiving with their families."

Staff writer Jason Laughlin contributed to this article.