After six days, the SEPTA strike ended just as it began – in an abrupt overnight decision.
In its third strike in just more than a decade, the approximately 5,000 members of the city’s Transportation Workers Union Local 234 halted work last week and with it, nearly all of the city’s trolley, subway and bus lines.
Today marks one week since the largely unanticipated move took effect at 3 a.m. Nov. 3, exposing deep and bitter rifts between SEPTA management and TWA members over workers’ contracts.
They reached a tentative agreement early Monday and went back to work for the morning commute.
Mayor Nutter’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the resolution.
Many Philadelphians were unprepared last Tuesday morning when they woke to learn most public transportation lines would not be running, forcing them to rapidly make other arrangements for their morning commutes. Although Regional Rail lines remained in operation, SEPTA reported widespread overcrowding and delays.
The union’s tactics and apparent lack of cooperation had those at City Hall livid.
“It’s very disappointing that the union leadership would walk away from negotiations at a time when other Philadelphians are losing their jobs … taking pay cuts, taking furlough days and worrying about losing their pensions,” Luke Butler, a spokesman for Mayor Nutter, said shortly after the strike began.
“To inconvenience their fellow Philadelphians, who are trying to get to work or get around the city, in such a way is, frankly, outrageous,” he added.
Butler said the city offered what it considered to be a “very fair” package Nov. 2. While wages would not be increased this year, the contract included a $1,250 signing bonus for all TWU members. Annual raises, meanwhile, would have resumed next year, ultimately amounting to an 11 percent increase over the contract’s five-year duration.
The average SEPTA worker earns $52,000 annually, according to an Associated Press report. The report did not, however, offer a figure on annual TWU members’ salaries, as opposed to non-union workers.
The deal provided for increased pension spending, although it would have had workers increase their contributions to the fund. All this would have taken place without any increase in healthcare charges, which currently account for 1 percent of each member’s salary.
But TWU President Willie Brown apparently found these terms unacceptable. The strike began three hours after he walked out on contract negotiations. Those hoping for a quick resolution lost an ally Sunday, with Gov. Ed Rendell stepping out of negotiations to return to Harrisburg.
An anti-strike rally on Market Street just east of City Hall, drew half a dozen protesters Sunday, all angered over Brown’s tactics.
Protester Till Alaya said the stirke caused her commute to work to last more than an hour a day, and noted that many more may have attended the demonstration had transportation been available. She urged passersby to write a message to TWU leadership on a poster.
Most comments were inflammatory and some explicit. One read, “Be glad you have a job,” and another, “You can be replaced by the unemployed.”
Chris Galanti, a 2004 Temple graduate and protester, was somewhat less infuriated.
“I’ve lived in Philly for a while,” he said. “I’m used to strikes.”
Another demonstrator, blogger and graphic designer Larry West, 24, said the union was well within its rights to strike, but thought the decision was unwise on its part.
West blamed Brown for the strike. He accused Brown of “holding the city hostage,” and held a handwritten sign reading, “I’m not anti-union – I’m anti-Willie Brown!”
“They’ve been working without a contract for some months, and I sympathize with that,” West said. “But [Brown] waits until the World Series to threaten a strike. Now he’s trying to pressure the city to get the deal he wants.”
Unlike many others, West admitted that he would rather see the strike go on than Brown rewarded with an unfair deal, calling him a bully.
“I think they got a very generous offer, especially with the recession, when unemployment is over 10 percent,” he said.
West is not alone in his sentiments. During a time of drastically decreased revenue for the city, SEPTA officials said, the contract’s terms were exceptionally generous. But TWU leadership addressed this assertion in a newsletter to members last month, pointing out that increased ridership raised fare revenue by 30 percent. After taking state funding and federal stimulus money into account, the union argued, the city could afford wage increases.
Also of great concern to the union was SEPTA’s disregard of “picking rights” – the ability of workers to choose what equipment they work with based on seniority. Additionally, a TWU newsletter sent out to its members last month cited “discrimination” against union workers. Union leadership did not respond to requests to elaborate on that allegation.
A temporary deal brokered early Monday morning put workers back on the job. The contract is expected to pass an at-large vote next week, with the city allowing the union to reopen negotiations on health insurance payments in the future if President Obama’s healthcare bill passes the Senate.
For Thomas Davis, a union representative at Fern Rock Transportation center, pension funding is a major issue.
“We’re getting an 11 percent raise over the next five years, but we’ll also have to pay 2 1/2 percent more on our pensions each year,” Davis said. “Suddenly, the 11 percent starts to look like a lot less.”
Davis also pointed out that, unlike SEPTA management, which has 90 percent of pension contributions matched, workers only receive 50 percent.
Davis and the other picketers at Fern Rock expressed mistrust of City Hall, which is juggling contract negotiations with several other unions. They want the budget to be independently audited by a third-party firm.
Regardless of tensions that may continue, Samantha Salley, a sophomore psychology major, was glad to hear the strike ended Monday.
“It’ll be so much easier getting around the city now,” she said. “I don’t have anything against unions, but striking seemed a bit extreme.”
At six days, the strike did not last as long as its two predecessors – a 1998 strike lasted 40 days, and one in 2005 lasted a week.
Don Hoegg can be reached at email@example.com.