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SEPTA and its largest union have a contract agreement, averting a public transit strike

The deal avoids a shutdown of Philadelphia’s public transit system as it struggles to recover from a steep drop in ridership driven by the pandemic.

Riders at SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line stop at 15th Street. The deal means no service interruption on city transit.
Riders at SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line stop at 15th Street. The deal means no service interruption on city transit.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / MCT

SEPTA and its largest union have reached tentative agreement on a new contract, averting a damaging strike that would have shut down Philadelphia’s public transit system as it struggles to recover from a steep drop in ridership driven by the pandemic.

For the region, the deal immediately removes the headache of an extra-congested Monday trip to work and a disruption of Philadelphia public schools, where 60,000 students and about 20,000 teachers and staff rely on public transit.

Members of Transport Workers Local 234 will get 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. They also won paid parental leave.

“I am very pleased that we were able to come to terms without a strike,” said TWU Local 234 President Willie Brown. “Our members are essential workers who move Philadelphia and who have risked their lives, putting their own families at risk, during this pandemic.”

The union and the transit authority announced the agreement in separate statements about 7:30 a.m. Friday.

The contract is “fair to our employees and fiscally responsible for SEPTA,” said board Chairman Pasquale T. Deon Sr. in a statement.

Next, the proposed contract needs to be ratified by union members and approved by SEPTA’s board. A TWU ratification vote is scheduled for Nov. 5. The regional transit agency board will vote Nov. 18, Deon said.

An agreement was reached late Thursday night after several days of intensive bargaining sessions at an Old City hotel, interspersed with more informal talks and exchanges of proposed language. The existing pact was set to expire at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 1.

TWU got much of what it wanted, but not all.

The union had sought a four-year contract with wage increases and the retroactive pandemic hazard pay. It also did not obtain increased survivor benefits for families of the 11 SEPTA frontline workers who died of COVID-19, which was an emotional rallying point for many TWU members.

Transit authority negotiators offered a two-year contract with a wage increase and the bonus or a four-year deal tying pay increases to SEPTA’s ability to afford them. With ridership yet to rebound fully from its pandemic low and a murky picture of where commuting and transit-use patterns are headed, the agency said, it couldn’t afford to guarantee pay hikes so far into the future.

“This was a difficult time to negotiate a contract,” Brown said. “SEPTA is facing unprecedented challenges. ... And, without question, the solidarity of our members was the key factor. The talks became far more productive after last Sunday’s unanimous strike vote.”

TWU represents about 5,000 people working on the city transit network. Members are bus, trolley, and subway drivers, as well as mechanics and station cashiers. Depending on job title and service time, union members make between $16 and $36 per hour and are eligible for overtime.

Union members also sought better security on the SEPTA system, given high-profile crimes and abuse and assaults against members, some from passengers frustrated at federal mask requirements on transit. Security was not addressed in the agreement; union leaders said they would continue to press SEPTA on the issue.

The proposed contract also includes, for the first time, two weeks of paid parental leave at the birth or adoption of a child, TWU said. A separate leave provision for pregnancy or childbirth was also included; union members now must use their sick time.

Without federal relief money, SEPTA would have had an operating deficit of about $287 million for the three months ending Sept. 25, according to the agency’s latest public financial statements.

On the system overall, ridership is at 47% of pre-pandemic levels, and SEPTA says it continues to lose $1 million a day. It has received $1.5 billion in operating funds from three federal pandemic relief payments — likely enough, officials say, to last through 2023.

Future state funding is uncertain. The legislature has not acted to replace a transit funding formula that is expiring. SEPTA has no authority to levy taxes within its five-county territory, unlike many large transit agencies in the United States.

Since 1975, SEPTA and its customers have experienced 13 separate transit strikes that interrupted service, many called by the historically militant TWU. The last was a six-day walkout five years ago.

“This was a very unusual negotiation — I’ve never seen one like this,” said Francis Ryan, an assistant professor of labor history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick who has written two books about Philadelphia unions. “The pandemic and all that goes with it really amplified what transit workers go through and what they provide. How do you not sympathize with them?”

There has been a surge of strikes in several U.S. industries this fall, and polling shows more support for unions than at any time since 1965, he said. “There just seems to be a different mood right now,” said Ryan, a native of Frankford.

And the federal relief money “put SEPTA in a position to make the deal,” said U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.), a former SEPTA board member and a sponsor of the legislation. He urged a settlement in many phone conversations with the agency’s general manager, Leslie S. Richards, Deon, Brown, and city officials.

Riders, the transit workers, and the authority all shared an interest in avoiding a service disruption, Evans said. “The incentive is the economy, stability, the need to keep things running in the city,” he said.

SEPTA’s labor-relations work is not finished for the year. A contract with the United Transportation Union Local 1594 expires Nov. 18. It covers 365 bus, trolley, and light-rail operators on suburban bus routes, two trolley lines in Delaware County, and the Norristown High Speed Line.

Contracts with two units also represented by TWU Local 234 expire next month: a pact with 175 maintenance workers in the suburbs on Nov. 18 and a deal with 222 bus operators and mechanics based in Montgomery and Bucks Counties on Nov. 23.

Typically, these contracts closely mirror agreements with TWU’s city transit division workers.