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SEPTA transit workers vote to authorize a strike if needed

Sunday's vote gives SEPTA's largest labor union negotiating leverage. Workers may walk when the current contract expires Nov. 1.

Willie Brown, president of the Transit Workers Union Local 234, speaks with reporters outside of the Local 19 Sheet Metal Workers Union Hall in Philadelphia, Pa. on Sunday. SEPTA's Transit Workers Union voted to authorize a strike amid negotiations over a contract that expires at 12:01 a.m. Nov 1.
Willie Brown, president of the Transit Workers Union Local 234, speaks with reporters outside of the Local 19 Sheet Metal Workers Union Hall in Philadelphia, Pa. on Sunday. SEPTA's Transit Workers Union voted to authorize a strike amid negotiations over a contract that expires at 12:01 a.m. Nov 1.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Members of SEPTA’s largest labor union voted Sunday to authorize a strike against the public transit authority should negotiations on a new contract founder before the current agreement expires at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 1.

» UPDATE: SEPTA, union avoid strike by agreeing to new contract

By a voice vote, an auditorium full of Transport Workers Union Local 234 members unanimously gave their leaders the power to call a strike during a closed meeting at the Sheet Metal Workers Union Hall in South Philadelphia, union officials and rank-and-file voters said afterward.

The union represents about 5,000 operators of buses trolleys and rapid-transit trains in the city, as well as mechanics and others.

Local 234 president Willie Brown said SEPTA forced the vote by refusing to budge on union demands that include higher wages, paid parental leave and a onetime payment to reward the frontline workers who have kept transit running through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is clearly an indication they weren’t listening,” Brown told reporters. “We don’t want to strike,” he said. “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.”

But SEPTA says that “productive” talks are continuing.

Buses, trolleys, the subway, and elevated train lines operating in Philadelphia will not be shut down immediately, if at all. Strike approval simply gives Local 234 leverage as talks continue this week.

If it were to happen, a strike could begin early 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, whose employees are represented by different unions.

“SEPTA and representatives from TWU Local 234 have been engaging in productive dialogue at the bargaining table,” SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said in a statement Sunday. “Those discussions will continue this week and we are hopeful that an agreement can be reached without any service disruptions for riders.”

Talks between the authority and the union began in the summer and intensified last week.

They are taking place as transit ridership slowly rebounds from the nadir of the pandemic, with SEPTA saying it still loses $1 million a day, and as strikes spread across several U.S. industries. Workers have more power in the labor market than they’ve had in a long time, with many employers unable to fill job vacancies.

» READ MORE: What you need to know about a possible SEPTA strike

A Local 234 strike could clog much of the city with auto traffic and inconvenience SEPTA’s most loyal customers who rely on transit to get to work and make other important trips. The last strike against SEPTA came in 2016 when TWU Local 234 walked out over pensions and other issues.

Leaders in city government, the school district and business are trying to gauge the likelihood of a walkout and are making contingency plans.

Kevin Lessard, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said Sunday that the city is assessing how a SEPTA strike would affect city services, the operation of departments, and the Nov. 2 municipal election.

“Mayor Kenney has urged both SEPTA and the Transport Workers Union to maintain communication to avoid any work stoppage or service disruption,” Lessard said. “Transportation workers are essential to keeping our region running around the clock and they have been on the front lines during most trying times. They deserve to be fairly compensated for their hard work.”

A SEPTA strike would be “devastating,” school district spokesperson Monica M. Lewis said in a statement. Some 60,000 students rely on transit to get to their schools, and about 20,000 schools employees use transit to get to work. Lewis said the district would be forced to go back to virtual learning after working hard to make in-person classes happen again.

Eleven TWU members died of COVID-19, and many say they find it galling that those workers’ families received fruit baskets, while the families of frontline New York transit workers got $500,000 in survivor benefits. An impassioned speaker on the floor said “we are heroes, not zeros,” people inside said, and a moment of silence was held for the coworkers who lost their lives.

Bus driver Derek Banks said most everybody in the meeting was “on board” with a strike, while hoping a deal is struck before that would become necessary.

“We’re united, and that means a lot to us,” Banks said. “For one, we have to stay together because if they take something from us, that means we never get it back.”

Union leaders said in a newsletter last week that SEPTA would like to eliminate a no-layoff contract clause and have the right “to use new technology, including autonomous vehicles.” SEPTA also wants to stop a scheduling practice that allows operators with the most seniority to choose longer runs with guaranteed overtime, they said.

“We just want job security,” Darryl Tate, a bus driver in the city, said — at a time when SEPTA officials say it’s difficult to project what transit in the region will look like in the post-pandemic world. Tate also said the authority must improve safety “for everyone” — workers and the public — from crime and abuse on the system.

Staff writers Michaelle Bond and Kristen Graham contributed to this article.