SEPTA workers authorize possible strike in November

The union representing almost 5,000 SEPTA workers, including bus, subway, and trolley operators, voted Sunday to authorize a strike if negotiations for a new contract fail.

The Transportation Workers Union Local 234 and SEPTA have until the end of Oct. 31 to reach agreement before the current contract expires.

The vote in favor of a strike was unanimous, said TWU union spokesman Jamie Horwitz.

A second vote was taken to decide whether the union would allow the current contract to be extended to forestall a strike, he said.

"It was made clear by the members and leadership that there would be no extension," Horwitz said. That also passed unanimously.

At issue are health care, pensions, and wages, according to the union. Members say they also are concerned with the amount of down time vehicle operators receive between shifts.

Local 234 president Willie Brown said a lack of down time is making drivers, particularly newer employees who have less ability to control their schedules, tired while running buses and trolleys.

"You become a liability out there on the street," Brown said.

A strike could affect the Market-Frankford and Broad Street subway lines, as well as trolley and bus services. Local 234 represents 4,738 operators, mechanics, maintenance custodians, and trade specialists, SEPTA said in a statement Sunday.

SEPTA will put out alternative service information if needed, authority spokesman Andrew Busch said.

The TWU had one-week strikes in 2005 and 2009. During the 2009 strike, which came amid a recession and during Phillies World Series games, the city's transit lines were shut down, leading to heavy commuter traffic and frustration. This year, a strike could overlap with the final days of the race for the presidency. Union spokesman Horwitz said a strike on election day, Nov. 8, could make it harder for voters to reach the polls.

Brown was president of the union in 2009, as well, and was a target of rider resentment.

During an interview Sunday, he defended the possibility of a strike and said he was prepared for the region's animosity.

"That's the only tool we have available to us," he said. "We don't have binding arbitration."

He said he would not agree to a SEPTA proposal that would cost workers more for the same health care coverage they now receive, and chafed at the distribution of pensions in a way that he said benefited managers more than workers.

Representatives of SEPTA and the TWU are expected to engage in frequent negotiations at the Sheraton Hotel on 17th and Arch Streets until the deadline at the end of the month, Brown said.

SEPTA, meanwhile, has said little other than that negotiations will continue.

"The parties continue to bargain to reach a new agreement," Busch said. "While we hope that the union does not exercise its right to strike, we are focusing on reaching a new contract that's in the best interest of our riders, employees, and stakeholders."