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Transport workers union warns members to prepare for tough contract talks with SEPTA

The current contract with TWU Local 234 expires Oct. 31. It is the largest union of SEPTA workers.

A SEPTA bus stopped at the Olney Station in North Philadelphia.
A SEPTA bus stopped at the Olney Station in North Philadelphia.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

Transport Workers Union Local 234 has a message for its members heading into negotiations with SEPTA on a new contract after working the front lines during the COVID-19 pandemic: Hang tough and prepare for a possible strike.

In a video that was scheduled to be distributed to members Tuesday morning, the local’s leadership makes clear it will expect some compensation for the risks transit workers took to keep the trains, buses, and trolleys running for more than a year during the pandemic.

“Hey, we were out here, on the front line, doing what we were supposed to do, putting our fears aside and coming out every day,” Mahlikah Askia, a SEPTA cashier, says in the video. “I really think SEPTA needs to take that into consideration. Let’s get away from business as usual.”

The transit agency’s contract with TWU Local 234 expires Oct. 31. It is the largest union of SEPTA workers, representing bus, subway and trolley operators, cashiers, mechanics, and maintenance workers, among others.

More than 800 workers were infected with COVID-19 and 11 TWU members died of the virus, the union says. It accuses SEPTA of being slow to get members proper personal protective equipment and of having restrictive sick-leave policies for those afflicted with or exposed to COVID-19.

In a pre-bargaining survey, members overwhelmingly said they want retroactive hazard pay, Local 234 president Willie Brown said in a recent interview.

“It’s not something that we’re willing to walk away from,” Brown said. “This is something our members are demanding.” The union also will seek a pay hike and to stand pat on benefits, he said.

A hazard-pay lump sum would not be in lieu of a raise. “No, we expect a wage increase and hazard pay,” union vice president Brian Pollitt said.

SEPTA said during the height of the pandemic that it could not afford hazardous duty pay for its workers, while it was bleeding money from a steep drop in ridership. Ridership has since increased but is far below normal levels.

The authority got about $800 million in federal aid to pay operations costs in the first two pandemic bills under the Trump administration and about $660 million from President Joe Biden’s relief program. SEPTA officials have said most of the money covered labor costs.

Negotiations between SEPTA and the TWU have often been tense. SEPTA’s largest union went on strike 12 times between 1971 and 2016.

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