Transit strikes always burden commuters, but the timing of today’s walkout by SEPTA employees was especially unfair.
Transport Workers Union Local 234 went on strike at 3 a.m. with virtually no warning to the traveling public. More than 5,000 train operators, bus drivers, and mechanics did not report to work, shutting down all subway, bus, and trolley service in the city and bus lines in some suburbs.
That action left many people who must travel to and from work before dawn without any options. It was a cavalier way to treat loyal customers who depend on SEPTA to get to work or school.
The union had authorized a strike a week ago, but many people went to bed Monday night believing a walkout had been averted. The union had agreed under pressure from Gov. Rendell and other elected leaders not to strike during the World Series. But three hours after Game 5 ended in South Philly, the union walked.
So it was strike three for many working stiffs — a waitress trying to ride the Market-Frankford El to her job at a diner in Old City; hospital workers in Center City trying to get home after an overnight shift; a woman who was stranded on the first day of her new job. It was the same for tens of thousands of other riders like them, many of whom don’t earn as much as the average SEPTA employee ($52,000).
The strike began on a federal holiday when city schools were closed. Otherwise, the commuter chaos would have been even worse. But it also came on Election Day, making it more difficult for some people to vote before 8 p.m.
As of late Monday, there was no word of a settlement, raising the prospect of an uglier commute on Tuesday.
SEPTA’s largest union had been working without a contract since March. Neither Local 234 nor the transit agency should have allowed the impasse to drag on this long. It took the threat of a strike during the nationally televised showcase of the World Series to get negotiators closer to a deal.
As for SEPTA’s offer, it hardly seems like the kind of affront that would spark a walkout, especially in these tough economic times. Rendell said SEPTA proposed a $1,250 signing bonus upon ratification, a 2.5-percent raise the second year, and 3-percent raises in each of the next three years. The union is asking for raises of 4 percent annually and improved work rules.
SEPTA also offered to increase pension payments to workers (the union contends SEPTA has chronically underfunded its pension plan), and not to increase employees’ health-insurance contributions, now at 1 percent.
To many workers out there, and to a legion of the unemployed, such terms sound like a dream, not a reason to ambush commuters with a citywide shutdown of transportation services. If it hasn’t, the union should return to the bargaining table with that in mind.