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SEPTA must negotiate contracts with nearly all its labor unions amid looming financial crisis

At least 14 separate bargaining units represent SEPTA’s vast workforce and the transit agency faces contract negotiations with almost all of them in the coming months.

A SEPTA worker at the Local 19 Sheet Metal Workers union hall. Amid a looming financial crisis, SEPTA is negotiating contracts with several of its unions.
A SEPTA worker at the Local 19 Sheet Metal Workers union hall. Amid a looming financial crisis, SEPTA is negotiating contracts with several of its unions.Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

At least 14 separate bargaining units represent SEPTA’s vast workforce, and the transit agency faces contract negotiations with almost all of them in the coming months.

Labor negotiations are often fraught for companies and workers, but SEPTA is known as one of the most strike-prone large transit systems in the country — unions have walked off the job at least 11 times since 1975. This year, SEPTA ridership remains depressed and its own financial future depends on coaxing more money from state and local governments.

Active talks are underway on new agreements with three unions, and SEPTA officials are meeting with a fourth, the 4,500-member Transport Workers Union Local 234, with a contract set to expire Oct. 31. Three more collective bargaining agreements expire in November, and eight others in the first two months of 2024, SEPTA says.

“SEPTA is committed to continuing good- faith discussions toward reaching agreements that are fair to employees and fiscally responsible to farepayers and taxpayers,” spokesperson Andrew Busch said.

The authority projects an annual operating deficit of $240 million beginning next July 1 as the last of its federal pandemic aid is spent, a situation dubbed the “fiscal cliff” that afflicts most transit systems in the United States. Riders have not returned in pre-COVID 19 numbers, and changing travel patterns have accelerated in the last three years.

SEPTA and the state’s other public transit agencies are pushing for the legislature to adopt a measure that would give them a greater share of the sales tax to support operations.

Uncertainty about finances makes it difficult to say “yes” to increased pay and benefits for TWU Local 234, which represents operators of buses, trolleys, and transit trains, SEPTA CEO Leslie S. Richards said Tuesday during a hearing of the state House Transportation Committee at the agency’s headquarters.

“We need to invest in our people,” Richards said. “We really need this budget relief to know that we have a solid [base] for years so that we can give our best contract to those who make our system work.”

SEPTA’s sheer number of labor unions could complicate the process.

SEPTA came into being in 1964 and expanded into the early 1980s by absorbing existing transit systems in the region that had been operated by a variety of private companies. Some of those acquisitions came with existing labor unions, which were not consolidated, said Francis Ryan, a labor studies professor at Rutgers University.

These contracts have significant ripple effects for the workforce throughout Philadelphia and the suburbs, noted Danny Bauder, president of the Philadelphia Council AFL-CIO, of which SEPTA’s largest union is a member.

“They are clearly what we were calling ‘essential workers,’ and have always been, but it’s the right time to show them that they are essential and treat them with respect and express that respect at the bargaining table,” Bauder said.

In the face of these financial challenges, there is still room for the unions to seek noneconomic benefits, a greater say in how the system runs, and perhaps “scheduling innovations” to create more flexibility, Ryan said. ”There might be an opportunity to be more creative in terms of what is being negotiated for,” he said.

Here’s what five unions are negotiating for and how things are going.

Transport Workers Union, Local 234

Membership: 5000+
Their jobs: Bus, trolley, and subway operators, mechanics.
Contract status: Expires Oct. 31; in negotiations.

SEPTA’s largest union started negotiating a new contract in July. In addition to the typical labor priorities like pay and benefits, the union is prioritizing public safety and law enforcement.

Union leaders have said increased public safety will strengthen the transit system and help preserve members’ jobs. Also, safety concerns are a challenge to hiring and retaining bus and trolley operators, as the system experiences a shortage of those workers.

SEPTA has been investing in public safety efforts already this year, but TWU leaders want more, including more police on public transit. Assaults on transit operators have risen dramatically over the last five years, and antisocial behavior is rampant on the El.

“We’re also bargaining for more competitive compensation, which will help our people and their families, but also help SEPTA with recruitment and retention,” said Brian Pollitt, president of TWU Local 234. “Right now, we’re at a pivot point; negotiations can go either way. It’s also a pivotal time for SEPTA.”

Other contract terms the union is seeking in order to combat staffing shortages are a pay boost for those early in their careers and changes to aspects of the work, such as reducing unpredictable schedules for less-senior operators.

Local 234′s current contract, from 2021, included 3% annual raises, pandemic hazard pay, and two weeks of paid parental leave (alongside a separate leave provision for pregnancy and childbirth.)

Fraternal Order of Transit Police, Lodge 109

Membership: Currently about 170.
Their jobs: Patrol and special unit police officers.
Contract status: Expired March 31; negotiations began in April.

Amid a public outcry over crime and disorder on the region’s transit system and difficulty recruiting and retaining police officers, SEPTA last year agreed to raise starting pay for officers by 25% and to shorten the amount of time it takes them to reach the top pay rate.

A police academy class of 20 officers hired under the new terms — negotiated as an amendment to the current contract — graduated this spring and joined the ranks.

But after nearly five months of talks without progress on a new contract, the FOTP has called in a mediator and could hold a strike authorization vote early next month, union president Omari Bervine, a transit patrol officer, said.

Last year’s changes were welcome but “brought us up to being only slightly behind other departments,” he said, noting that five to seven officers had taken jobs elsewhere in recent months. Recent police contracts in the region have given across-the-board raises that help keep pace with hikes in the cost of living, Bervine said.

“If you want to have a police force, if you care about public safety, you have to invest in it and SEPTA is pinching pennies,” Bervine said.

Unlike police in Philadelphia and other municipal departments, transit police don’t have binding arbitration and arbitrators can only make recommendations.

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Division 71

Membership: 174, over 200 when fully staffed.
Their jobs: Regional Rail engineers.
Contract status: Expired March 2; in mediation.

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen is trying to win higher wages for Regional Rail engineers. They’re also negotiating hazard pay related to COVID-19 as part of this contract, said Donald Hill, general chairman of BLET Division 71.

According to the union, SEPTA pays engineers less than any other U.S. passenger railroad system. In recent years, young hires have been quickly leaving SEPTA Regional Rail for those other systems once they learn what other employers are offering, Hill said.

Under the Railway Labor Act, they must undergo a specific process of bargaining, mediation, and arbitration before going on strike.

Two months into negotiations, it seemed the union and the transit authority had reached an impasse over pay discussions as well as the decades-old practice of using management employees to fill in as engineers in exchange for a stipend.

Since then, there hasn’t been much progress at the table, Hill said, and SEPTA’s offers have not been “anywhere close to what we believe would be a fair deal.” The TWU now negotiating a contract at the same time “can’t hurt,” Hill said, noting that the unions have been working together more in recent years.

Regional Rail’s engineers roster is “dangerously low,” the union said this summer, contending that 141 engineers are needed for the system to operate basic daily service. It should be at its full complement of 230, the union says.

Hill said there are about 150 engineers on the roster. According to SEPTA spokesperson Busch, Regional Rail has 174 engineers on staff and 26 in training.

International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Transportation Division, Local 61

Membership: Over 400.
Their jobs: Regional Rail conductors and assistant conductors.
Contract status: Expired nearly two years; in mediation.

Like the engineers, Regional Rail conductors’ ability to strike is limited by the Railway Labor Act. They’re currently in the mediation stage, according to the union.

Pay raises are a major concern in bargaining, and SEPTA’s offer in recent negotiations wouldn’t keep pace with inflation, said Local 61 general chairperson Ray Boyer. Starting pay is $21.76 for assistant conductors, lower than at the other rail employers in the region.

Regional Rail has lost a significant number of conductors to competitors like Amtrak and NJ Transit. “It’s become a training facility,” Boyer said. “They come here, they get their paperwork to be a conductor or engineer, and then they leave.”

Understaffing means conductors sometimes must work an entire train by themselves, Boyer said.

Like the engineers, Local 61 members have not received COVID-19 hazard pay. Busch said SEPTA’s initial contract offers for engineers and conductors included hazard pay.

International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, Transportation Division, Local 1594

Membership: Around 350.
Their jobs: Suburban bus, trolley, and Norristown High Speed Line operators.
Contract status: Expires Nov. 15.

The suburban transit operators reached their most recent contract in 2021.

Anthony Petty, general chairman of SMART Local 1594, declined to say whether bargaining has started, only adding that the union will negotiate in good faith.

The most recent contract matched financial terms of TWU Local 234.