SEPTA and union are still talking, still say a contract is close

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Students at Hahnemann Hospital - Drexel University College of Medicine wait for their Drexel shuttle bus at the hospital on 15th Street during evening rush hour on the second day of the SEPTA strike November 2, 2016.

On the second day of a transit strike that has paralyzed Philadelphia, SEPTA accused the union leadership late Wednesday night of prolonging the walkout even after the authority had agreed to meet many of the union's demands.

"We've tried to be respectful," said Fran Kelly, SEPTA's assistant deputy manager for government affairs. "Now we're going into a third day where people's lives are disrupted."

He said SEPTA would pursue an injunction Thursday in U.S. District Court that would force union members to report to work on Nov. 8, Election Day.

Update: As of Thursday night, SEPTA had not filed an injunction

In the statement sent about 11 p.m. Wednesday, SEPTA board chairman Pasquale Deon called on the leadership of Transportation Workers Union Local 234 to negotiate in good faith.

"I ask the TWU leadership to meaningfully engage in negotiations without delay," Deon said. "Too much is at stake for either side to fail to fully engage in the negotiating process."

The union said it was not ready to respond, but that it would.

The statement marks the first time SEPTA has provided details on its proposal to resolve the strike that began at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

SEPTA is offering to remove the current cap on pensions for the 4,738 striking workers, as well as an 8 percent increase in pension benefits, an issue union representatives have described as a major concern. Union pensions are presently capped at a payout of $30,000 a year.  SEPTA is also offering wage increases that over five years would raise the average pay with overtime from $68,100 to $76,200 a year, and medical coverage for up to $164 a month, compared to the $46 a month union workers currently pay.

The statement came at the end of a day that began with both sides seeming optimistic about a strike resolution.

SEPTA thought a deal was imminent, Kelly said, but an issue that the union hadn't raised publicly before limiting the amount of time cameras on vehicles recorded before and after an incident such as an accident or fight. SEPTA wants the ability to review more of the recordings made before and after incidents, Kelly said.

"The whole world wants accountability," he said.

Deon's statement was released even as negotiators from both sides sat at the bargaining table, a union representative said.

In the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel at 17th and Race Streets, where negotiations were being held, SEPTA board member John Kane and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Phila.) were surprised by the release.

"I don't know why he's doing that," Brady said, referring to Deon.

Brady has been key to resolving past strikes and has been deeply involved in this one. He's been a steady presence at the hotel since Monday night.

Most of Wednesday was taken up with the local's executive board reviewing the proposal and preparing a response. Both parties talked about making progress and said things were closer Wednesday than they had been the day before, but that didn't mean discussions over the fine points were going to happen quickly.

"It's always that little something," Brady said.

Brady is not the only political leader who has visited the negotiations. Democratic State Rep. Dwight Evans, a SEPTA board member, stopped at the Sheraton on Wednesday.

Brady and others familiar with the negotiations said SEPTA has presented the union with a "box" of funds available. Neither the union nor SEPTA is disclosing the dollar amount under discussion, but negotiations are centering on how to divide that money to address union requests, including wage increases.

Brady had said he would seek funds to bridge the gap between union demands and SEPTA's budget, but on Wednesday he said both the city and Gov. Wolf's office told him there was no more money that could be allocated to SEPTA.

In an email response to questions about additional funding for SEPTA, Wolf did not address the question but said he has urged both sides to continue talking. Philadelphia state lawmakers also said they had not heard of any effort to free up state money to resolve the strike.

Meanwhile, Election Day looms. While both parties have expressed concern about Tuesday's voter turnout, Democrats are particularly worried that the strike could affect Hillary Clinton's chances of holding Pennsylvania, a state where large Republican areas are counterbalanced by a huge Democratic advantage in Philadelphia.

"They should be concerned," Brady said. "I'm concerned."

Although most polling places are within walking distance of voters' homes, some people have said that their longer work commutes could stop them from getting to the polls on time.

SEPTA officials have said they would seek an injunction to force workers back on the job for Election Day if the strike threatens to extend into next week.

While Democrats fret over whether the strike will affect the election, people with disabilities in Philadelphia have more immediate concerns: just getting around.

All of Philadelphia's buses are wheelchair-accessible, as are 35 percent of stations on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street lines. Both are now out of service, severely limiting mobility for people with disabilities. SEPTA's paratransit service is still running, but the authority warned that it would be overburdened and slow to respond during the strike.

On Tuesday, Rebecca Hamell, who walks with the assistance of a walker, said she didn't go to work at Liberty Resources, a Center City advocacy organization for the disabled. On Wednesday, she took Regional Rail from 46th Street to work.

Even that wasn't easy, she said, as the structure in train doorways presents an obstacle to wheeled mobility devices. Things are even harder for people with wheelchairs, she said.

"I feel very trapped in some ways," Hamell said.