No deal reached as SEPTA strike enters 2nd day

The line is long, extending out into the main concourse at 30th St. Station during the afternoon commute, as a SEPTA Ambassador checks passes and tickets on the first day of the SEPTA city workers’ strike on Tuesday.

 

Wednesday morning, day two of Philadelphia's transit strike, began with the two parties involved in contract negotiations using the same word: progress.

Whether that means the strike that has halted all buses, trolleys and subways in the city is near an end, though, is not clear. Members of the Transportation Workers Union Local 234, which represents the nearly 5,000 striking transit workers, were reviewing SEPTA's proposals for a new contract, union representatives said.

Talks between the union and SEPTA, facilitated by a mediator, extended past midnight Tuesday, officials said. One city official who has been monitoring the negotiations, Richard Lazer, deputy mayor for labor, said the most significant hold up came down to one thing.

"Pensions. Pensions. Pensions," he said Tuesday night.

At 5 p.m. Tuesday, seventeen hours after the strike began, SEPTA offered its first poststrike contract proposal.

The union rejected it almost immediately.

>>Follow along here for live updates from day two of the strike

But by 8 p.m., Congressman Bob Brady (D-Phila.) had brought players from the city, SEPTA and the union to the same table, literally. They sat together in the restaurant of the Sheraton Hotel at 201 N. 17th Street where negotiations have been held.

"The mayor wants to get this done as soon as possible," Lazer said.

During Local 234's last strike in 2009, Brady was instrumental in resolving a six-day work stoppage and said he was again prepared to help resolve the financial gap between the union's demands and SEPTA's offers.

"If I can find money, I will try to find money," he said, "whether it's the state, the city, or the feds."

He's been hearing from his constituency, he said, and most of the complaints are about the serious traffic troubles the strike is creating.

Picketers compounded travelers' woes by blockading Regional Rail train yards from 3:50 to almost 6 p.m. Regional Rail was the only mass transit option in Philadelphia still running and SEPTA obtained an injunction from Philadelphia Common Pleas Court that allowed train crews to report to their jobs.

Fifteen-minute commutes turned into an hour of travel. Some trains were delayed by more than an hour. Workers were late or didn't show up at all. During rush hour, high demand on ride hailing apps in Center City caused surge pricing that pushed UberX rates to 2.5 times the cost during less busy hours.

Willie Brown, president of Local 234, is tuning it all out. 

"I don't read the paper," he said in an interview Tuesday night. "I don't watch the news."

He wouldn't speculate when the strike might end.

Brown has made a temporary office of a hotel room with a panoramic view of western Philadelphia. The bed's headboard is still there, but the mattress has been replaced by a row of tables covered in paperwork and pens. He compared the strike to war, and said he was battling to give members a secure retirement and a quality workplace.

"Nobody wants to be on strike but sometimes you have to take a stand because members live it every day," he said.

The major issues, he said, are pensions and work rules, he said.

Pensions rankle TWU members because theirs don't increase if a worker makes more than $50,000 a year, meaning a union member will receive no more than $30,000 a year in pension payments after retirement even if they earned more than $50,000 when they retired. By contrast, managers with SEPTA have no pension caps.

In 2014 the union nearly struck in part because of the same pension concerns, but held off, Brown said, because they anticipated pension reforms would create more equity. 

"That to me is a slap in the face," Brown said. "I'm sitting across the table from people who benefited from that saying, `We got it, but there's nothing there for you.' "

SEPTA officials have outlined the benefits of working there. With overtime, TWU workers are paid an average of more than $68,000 a year. They have a no layoff clause. And they pay just $46 a month for excellent health care, SEPTA's board chairman Pasquale Deon has said.

The union also wants a mandatory 14-hour period between shifts, rather than the current nine-hour down time. Contractually required five-minute breaks between routes aren't always honored, Brown said, and aren't long enough anyway. TWU is wants those breaks extended to 10 minutes. These are matters that contribute to stressful work conditions and fatigue on the job, which Brown says are not trivial.
 SEPTA has said it is constantly tweaking its scheduling to make shifts safer for drivers.

The strike is costing his workers pay and their medical insurance as long as it lasts, but he said they are behind him. Picketers' comments Tuesday afternoon bore that out.

"If we had our choice, we wouldn't be here," said Mick Ostrowski, a section officer with the union picketing at Frankford Transportation Center. "It's the only weapon we have."

The TWU is highly supportive of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, Brown said, and members expected to volunteer to help her on election day, though he said they would not voluntarily return to work without a new contract. Election watchers are concerned the strike could suppress voter turnout in overwhelmingly Democratic Philadelphia and hurt Clinton.

Brady said her campaign operation in Philadelphia has expressed worry about that.

"I'm a little concerned about Election Day," he said.

He anticipated Clinton needed about 460,000 votes out of Philadelphia to offset Republican-leaning parts of the state. He anticipated she would receive that with or without a strike, but didn't want long commutes to be a reason people couldn't get to the polls.

The Philadelphia board of commissioners, which oversees elections in the city, has said strikes have overlapped with elections before and not hurt turnout. SEPTA has said they may seek an injunction to force workers back to their vehicles if the strike drags on. Brown said his people will fight to stay on strike in lieu of a contract, and framed their battle as one that mirrors the stereotypical Democrat and Republican dynamic, regular workers fighting for their rights against a big corporation.

A few stories beneath the makeshift office Brown established in the Sheraton, Joanne DiMartino tended bar in the hotel lobby.

The Sheraton's staff is unionized, she said, and she sympathized with the transit workers union's fight to improve workers conditions. She also said the strike forced her to walk more than three miles to work from her home at 47th Street and Baltimore Avenue. She usually takes a 15-minute trolley ride. It took her an hour to walk, and with more than half her shift over Tuesday afternoon she said her feet were hurting.

Her 16-year-old daughter waited for DiMartino to finish her shift, and the two were planning to use Uber to get home, she said.

"I respect what they're doing but it makes me nervous," DiMartino said. "Today I'm not going to even make enough to cover my ride."