Unions, SEPTA still in gridlock

Idle trains are parked in the SEPTA Roberts Avenue Yard at 342 Roberts Ave. due to the regional rail strike. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)

As commuters began to map new routes around SEPTA's shuttered Regional Rail lines today, rumblings out of Harrisburg hinted at new developments in the labor dispute.

Gov. Corbett announced that he has asked President Obama to call an emergency presidential board, a last-ditch effort to end the strike that leadership of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen had hoped wouldn't be needed.

“The people of Philadelphia and the surrounding region expect and deserve a safe and efficient rail system to get them to work, medical appointments, school, and recreation," Corbett said in a statement.

"I call on both parties to work together, find common ground and place the riders at the forefront of mind in their discussions.”

If the White House acts on the governor's request, the unions would be legally obligated to return to work while two boards of officials examine the situation and make recommendations for a resolution. That process usually takes about 220 days.

Steve Bruno, vice president of the BLET, said the unions hadn't been contacted by Corbett's office about the panel, which he described as "not the best possible outcome."

According to Bruno, a binding resolution between SEPTA and the unions is the preferred way to end the dispute.

Bruno told reporters today that "nothing has changed toward the collective bargaining agreement," between the striking unions and SEPTA, and that union leadership has had no contact with SEPTA since last night.

SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said that the transit authority can do little more than wait for the unions to return to work, and is hoping to reach a resolution in time for Monday's commute.

"The unions made the effort to walk out," she said. "What we're able to provide our riders is still at the discretion of those workers."

At the heart of the fight are pay raises offered by SEPTA to the more than 400 workers represented by the unions.

Union leadership contends that the raises aren't on par with what SEPTA has offered the Transport Workers Union, which advocates for the subway, trolley and bus operators and generally sets the pattern for all other union agreements.

The two striking unions are calling for retroactive raises covering the years they've spent working without contracts, as well as an additional 3 percent bump, which they claim would cover the pension payments given to the other union.

"SEPTA claims the pension plan given to other employees doesn't have that value, and we think that's baloney," Bruno said.

Bruno apologized today to the approximately 60,000 commuters displaced by the strike, but didn't show any signs of backing down.

"We're going to keep the strike until compelled by law to stop, or an agreement is reached," he said.