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Transit police nearer a strike

The union called for an emergency meeting after SEPTA rejected its call for binding arbitration.

SEPTA transit police moved a step closer to a strike yesterday as the agency rejected its police union's request for binding arbitration to end a long-running contract dispute.

Transit police are calling for an emergency membership meeting today, and a strike is possible within a week to 10 days, police said.

If transit police strike, SEPTA will rely on private security guards and Philadelphia police officers to protect riders, agency officials said.

The approximately 200 police officers who patrol the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines want the same pay as officers in the Philadelphia Police Department, who start at about $39,000 a year.

On Thursday, the Fraternal Order of Transit Police sent SEPTA a request for "final and binding arbitration." Yesterday, SEPTA rejected that request.

In a statement, the agency said, "Binding arbitration would produce no benefit to these negotiations that have not already been clearly delineated" by a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board fact finder in March.

The fact finder recommended that the police accept SEPTA's offer, with an additional increase in death benefits for families of officers killed on duty. One SEPTA officer, Sgt. Thomas Sewell, has been killed in the line of duty, on March 12, 1989.

The starting salary for a SEPTA police officer is $30,752 a year, with a maximum salary after four years of $49,804, including longevity payments. The "vast majority" of police receive the maximum salary, SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said.

SEPTA has offered its police a 3 percent annual wage increase over four years, a boost in longevity pay, and a requirement that police contribute 1 percent of their salary to help pay for health care.

The officers' last contract expired Sept. 30, 2005, and was extended for one year. The union membership has rejected three tentative agreements.

Union spokesman Anthony Ingargiola said SEPTA had offered to return to the bargaining table after June 19, when Philadelphia schools close and student riders are no longer a concern.

Students have been blamed for much of the recent violence on subways. Violent crime on the transit system, after years of decline, is up 81 percent since 2004. On March 26, Sean Patrick Conroy, a 36-year-old Starbucks store manager, collapsed and died after truant high schoolers beat him at the 13th Street Station on the Market-Frankford Line.

In calling for binding arbitration, Ingargiola said yesterday: "These two parties have proved they can't agree. This is a textbook definition of an impasse."

Unlike Philadelphia police officers, transit police are not prohibited by law from striking, but they cannot compel binding arbitration to settle wage disputes.

Ingargiola said the police hoped to "exercise every legal option we can" before striking.