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No suburban SEPTA strike as deal is reached with union

The 365 union members operate buses, trolleys and vehicles on the Norristown High Speed Line in Delaware and Montgomery Counties.

A Route 101 trolley makes its way back to Upper Darby from Media in Delaware County.
A Route 101 trolley makes its way back to Upper Darby from Media in Delaware County.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

A tentative contract agreement between SEPTA and the union representing some suburban operators of buses, trolleys, and the light-rail cars of the Norristown High Speed Line will avoid a strike and ensure no service disruption, the transit agency said Thursday.

The current contract for 365 members of SMART Local 1594 was set to expire at 12:01 a.m. Friday, and the local had been considering a strike — in large part, leaders said, over mandatory overtime rules during a persistent operator shortage.

“We’re happy. We think the agreement is fair to the employees and fiscally responsible for the agency,” said Andrew Busch, SEPTA spokesperson. Negotiators for the two sides finalized the settlement just before noon Thursday after a long bargaining session, he said.

» READ MORE: SEPTA is facing another possible strike, this time in the suburbs

Bruce Cheatham, president of the local, declined to comment late Thursday afternoon.

SMART is the result of a merger between the Sheet Metal Workers and the United Transportation Union, though its locals representing transit workers still sometimes are popularly referred to by their former name.

Members of SMART 1594 would get the same financial terms won last month by SEPTA’s largest union, Transport Workers Local 234, which represents about 5,000 workers in the city transit division, authority officials said.

There would be 3% annual raises in each of the two years of the contract, as well as a one-time pandemic hazard bonus of one dollar for each hour worked between March 15, 2020, and March 15 this year, to a maximum of $2,200. As their city counterparts did, SMART members will also receive paid parental leave, with no changes to health and pension plans.

Next, SMART 1594 will hold a ratification vote on whether to accept the deal. The union has not yet announced a date for that vote.

Its members work on.

SEPTA managers acknowledge the burden operators have borne with longer hours and sometimes abusive passengers. Many public transit agencies and transportation companies of various types have faced a shortage of operators.

Fifty candidates to become bus and trolley operators have been hired and are taking training classes, Busch said, adding that nine will be assigned to the Victory Division, the territory in Delaware and Montgomery Counties where the SMART union’s members work. It typically takes five weeks for a recruit to complete training, with both classroom and on-the-road work.

The base starting salary for bus and trolley operators, not including overtime, is $38,979, at an hourly rate of $18.74. With four or more years of experience, operators reach the top of the hourly pay scale, $31.64, which amounts to a $65,811 base salary.

The job comes with a pension, a rarity in most industries now, and is stable, though operators must deal with changing schedules, including split shifts, before they have enough seniority to get the most desirable assignments.