SEPTA rail engineers, who have long resisted pressure to wear uniforms, are protesting a new requirement that they wear fluorescent green-yellow vests when operating trains.
"We look like the Fruit of the Loom lemon in those things," said Thomas Dorricott, an engineer who is a labor union representative for SEPTA engineers.
SEPTA ordered engineers to wear the vests as a "safety and security" measure when rail security was heightened after the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 1.
The vests are similar to those worn by construction workers, street sweepers, and SEPTA customer-service representatives. They are also similar to safety vests that SEPTA engineers have long been required to wear when they are out of their trains checking the equipment.
SEPTA spokeswoman Jerria Williams said SEPTA ordered the new vests worn to make engineers identifiable to police officers and firefighters in an emergency. But Dorricott and union chief Richard Dixon said the vests also make engineers easy targets for anyone intent on attacking a train.
"They have identified for any potential terrorist who the locomotive engineer is," Dixon said.
The engineers said they would prefer to wear an identification card on a lanyard around their necks, as do engineers who operate Amtrak and NJ Transit trains. That way, the engineers said, they could identify themselves to first responders but not be identifiable at a distance to potential terrorists.
Williams said both would be better.
"We do like the lanyard idea, and we think it can be worn in addition to the vests," she said.
SEPTA and the engineers' union, as well as the agency's other rail unions, are involved in acrimonious labor negotiations, and the vest issue has become part of that battle. The engineers' contract expired in July, and the last bargaining talks broke off just days before the vest edict was handed down.
"We believe that SEPTA is using a safety pretext as a way to get de facto uniforms," Dorricott said. The union has filed a labor grievance over the vests, Dixon said.
Williams said: "We are going to be negotiating a uniform for engineers in the next contract negotiations. In the meantime, the vest lets people know that the person who goes in the cab is an authorized SEPTA employee."
SEPTA engineers have been suspicious of management's efforts to get them into uniforms ever since SEPTA inherited the former Pennsylvania and Reading rail operations from Conrail in 1983. The engineers view uniforms as part of a broader effort by the agency to give them duties and pay scales similar to those of bus drivers and trolley operators, who earn less and collect fares from passengers.
"We consider ourselves locomotive engineers who work for a railroad that happens to be under SEPTA, not SEPTA employees who happen to be locomotive engineers," Dorricott said.
In railroading tradition, uniformed conductors are in charge of the train, collecting fares and interacting with the passengers, while engineers operate the train.
Unlike airline pilots or bus drivers, engineers on most U.S. railroads do not wear uniforms, though they do in many other countries.
"SEPTA, in its desire to have us in uniforms and perform customer service work, is trying to get us into uniforms, and the vests are the first step," said Dixon, general chairman of the local Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "They just want to ram us into this and not negotiate it."
BLET represents about 195 SEPTA engineers.
Under the terms of their expired five-year contract, engineers earn a top hourly rate of $30.10. That's more than what other SEPTA operators make but is the lowest hourly wage rate of any commuter railroad in the nation, according to the union.