SEPTA’s largest labor union voted Sunday to authorize a strike should negotiations on a new contract break down. The current collective bargaining agreement expires at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 1.
An estimated 1,000 members of Transport Workers Union Local 234 conducted a voice vote at 11:42 a.m. at the Sheet Metal Workers Union Hall in South Philadelphia, union officials said.
The union, made up of about 5,000 members including bus drivers, cashiers, mechanics, and others, has been in negotiations with SEPTA over a new contract since the summer.
Local 234 President Willie Brown said SEPTA “forced” the union to take the authorization vote.
“This is clearly an indication they weren’t listening,” Brown said after the result was announced, adding, “We don’t want to strike. We’re going to do everything we can to keep the system running. But if things break down, we’ll do what we have to do.”
Strike authorization does not mean that service on buses, trolleys, the subway, and elevated train lines operating in Philadelphia would be immediately affected. Approval simply gives TWU Local 234 leverage as it continues talks this week. If it were to happen, a strike could begin early in the morning of Nov. 1 — one day before the 2021 Pennsylvania general election. It would not affect Regional Rail, the commuter trains from the suburbs to Center City.
“SEPTA and representatives from TWU Local 234 have been engaging in productive dialogue at the bargaining table,” SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said Sunday. “Those discussions will continue this week and we are hopeful that an agreement can be reached without any service disruptions for riders.”
The main bargaining issues include increased wages, “pandemic payment,” and paid parental leave.
In a statement issued Saturday, Brown said his members “are essential workers who have risked their lives and put their own families at risk during this pandemic. We’ve asked SEPTA to address issues related to health and safety and modest economic improvements, but SEPTA has slow-walked the contract talks.”
Stephan Montgomery, 68, who commutes regularly from Cobbs Creek to work in Center City, is concerned. The looming contract expiration brings back memories of SEPTA’s most recent strike in 2016, when workers held a six-day walkout over retirement benefits that “put a cramper on [his] moving around.”
He doesn’t have a car, and a strike would force him to pay high rideshare costs to get to his insurance job.
“It’s really got a burden on my mind,” he said, while adding that he does support increased pay for SEPTA workers. TWU members “deserve” higher wages, he said, because “they were frontline workers throughout all this mess,” he said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic.
SEPTA is offering a choice between a short-term contract of two years, with a small wage increase and a pandemic payment for union members, and a longer-term contract that does not guarantee wage increases but makes them contingent on how well the transit system recovers. TWU called the latter offer “an insult to the members of Local 234″ in a recent newsletter.
The union wants a four-year contract with wage increases and a “pandemic payment” to compensate frontline workers for the risks they have taken amid COVID-19. Union leaders also are demanding paid parental leave and object to contract changes SEPTA wants that would curtail seniority rights. They also want more police patrols of the system, given high-profile crimes, and abuse and assaults against members, some from passengers frustrated at federal mask requirements on transit.
“They’re going to strike,” predicted Jean Black, 83, of Southwest Philly, while waiting for a bus at the 69th Street Transportation Center on Saturday, adding TWU is “asking for too much now.”
» READ MORE: What you need to know about a possible SEPTA strike
Black, who said she personally wouldn’t be inconvenienced by a SEPTA strike because she doesn’t “have anywhere to go, no particular time to get there,” is concerned about the rest of the public, including students.
“It’s just a messy season. They picked a messy season to come to a disagreement,” Black said.
Though a strike is not inevitable, the School District of Philadelphia has begun to prepare plans in the event of disrupted service. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. braced parents and staff for the possibility of shifting back to virtual learning in the event of a strike in a recent letter. Students are currently meeting in-person.
Asked how a strike would affect its hospitals in the city, a spokesperson for Penn Medicine said, “Penn Medicine is fully prepared to continue all operations and provide uninterrupted care for the communities we serve in the event of disruption to public transportation services.”
While ridership is down from pre-pandemic levels, SEPTA service is nothing short of essential for many of the passengers the system currently has. Commuting has already been difficult with unreliable bus schedules during COVID-19, said one rider, and a strike, of course, would make matters much worse.
Judy Mclean, 60, of West Philadelphia, is hoping there is no strike. It would be a major inconvenience for her — she uses SEPTA to go out, as she did Saturday to shop for warm clothes for her husband as temperatures start feeling more like fall.
“The public needs SEPTA,” she said.