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SEPTA transport union members authorize strike

About 1,200 members of SEPTA's largest union voted unanimously yesterday to strike as early as the end of this week if no contract is reached with management.

About 1,200 members of SEPTA's largest union voted unanimously yesterday to strike as early as the end of this week if no contract is reached with management.

A walkout could come on the eve of the Phillies' World Series homestand, which starts Saturday - creating a transportation nightmare for thousands trying to get to and from the games.

Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents about 5,500 bus drivers, subway and trolley operators, and mechanics, has been without a contract since early spring.

Yesterday's vote "lets me know that everyone is on the same page as I am," TWU president Willie Brown said. "This will absolutely be the last week we work without a contract, so if we don't reach a new contract by week's end, we will go on strike.

"This is no joke. This is no hoax. It's going to happen."

Brown said union leadership and SEPTA management were preparing to check into Center City hotels today to begin round-the-clock negotiations.

SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said management was prepared to continue talking and was confident the sides could reach an agreement.

"We will go in there and focus on the meat-and-potatoes issues, which are wage, pension, and health care," he said. "There is no reason we cannot get a contract done.

"We've been talking on and off with them for months. We have had serious discussions over the past week and 10 days, and I think we have made a lot of substantive progress. I think if we get down to these basic issues in the next few days, there will be no reason for a work stoppage."

According to union officials, SEPTA management has proposed no wage increase for the first two years of a four-year contract and a 2 percent increase in each of the final two years. It also wants to increase worker contributions to health coverage from 1 percent to 4 percent and freeze the level of pension benefits.

The union wants a 4 percent raise each year and health contributions to remain 1 percent. It is also seeking an increase in pension contributions from $75 to $100 for every year of service.

"I do believe we can get a deal done," Brown said after TWU members voted at the Sheet Metal Workers' International Association on Columbus Boulevard. "Talks have been at a snail's pace since March, but we actually got a lot closer on the issues during meetings last Thursday and Friday. We felt like we are actually negotiating now."

The five-year contract expired March 15 for about 4,700 operators and mechanics in the City Transit Division, which operates the Broad Street Subway, the Market-Frankford Line, the subway-surface trolleys, and city bus routes. Separate contracts expired in April for Local 234's Victory and Frontier Divisions, which represent several hundred bus drivers in Montgomery and Bucks Counties.

In addition to the three primary issues, the TWU is seeking changes in subcontracting and training provisions to allow members to do maintenance and repair work on buses and trolleys now done by outside contractors.

SEPTA bus, subway, and trolley operators earn from $14.54 to $24.24 an hour, reaching the top rate after four years. Mechanics earn $14.40 to $27.59 an hour.

A strike would suspend service on all bus, trolley, and subway lines. (Regional Rail crews are covered by separate contracts.) That last happened in 2005, when a SEPTA strike lasted seven days.

But on the minds of management and union leaders is the potential impact and negative publicity of a walkout during World Series games Saturday, Sunday, and possibly next Monday. Phillies games add about 8,000 riders, on average, SEPTA's Maloney said.

The 76ers' home opener is Friday night at the Wachovia Center, and the Flyers have a game there Saturday afternoon. Also, Pearl Jam's four-concert appearance at the Wachovia Spectrum, beginning tomorrow, will end Saturday - and is expected to generate several thousand more SEPTA riders.

"We have a contingency plan if there is a strike," Maloney said. "We will communicate with our customers on alternatives."