SEPTA deal, reached at 5 a.m., will raise wages and health contributions

For the first time in a week Monday morning, Philadelphia's buses, trolleys, and subways were on the move, rolling again after the transit strike's end - and just in time for Election Day. 

The work stoppage, which began at 12:01 a.m. on Nov. 1, came to an end just before 5 a.m. Monday when SEPTA and leadership for the Transport Workers Union Local 234 signed a tentative five-year contract for 4,738 transit personnel. The agreement still needs to be formally approved by SEPTA's board and union members. 

"As everyone with experience in collective bargaining knows, we didn’t get everything we wanted," said Willie Brown, president of Local 234, "but we came a long way from where we were prior to the strike."

The union scheduled a ratifying vote for Nov. 18.

The agreement erases the possibility that the strike would hinder voting on Election Day. The lack of mass transit in the last week made commuting a lot more difficult, and some election watchers were concerned that voters would not have enough time to get to and from work and still make it to the polls. Sunday night the City of Philadelphia filed a motion requesting that a judge force a temporary end to the strike and make workers return to their jobs for Election Day. The resolution of the strike made that motion and a broader injunction request from SEPTA moot.

The officials said at an early morning news conference that the election wasn't the only concern that loomed over strike negotiators.

"The election was just one factor but I think the riding public we had out there was more important," said Pasquale Deon, SEPTA's board chairman.

Brown said he did not consider the election as negotiations progressed. 

"It didn't really play a factor with me," he said. "We were trying to get a contract and that's what we did."

The strike was SEPTA's 12th since 1975. The most recent was in 2009, when the TWU  workers walked away from work for six days.

With each strike, hundreds of thousands of people who rely on public transportation every day were left scrambling for other modes of transportation. Aside from the inconvenience for workers, children have trouble getting to school, mobility for people with disabilities is severely hindered, and people with illnesses must contend with more difficult trips to the hospital or to see medical professionals. All part of being a Philadelphian, officials said.

"It's just a normal course of business how it gets done in the city," Deon said at the news conference, which was held at the TWU's headquarters at Second and Spring Garden Streets. "It's unfortunate, but we all work together and it all comes out in the end." 

The end of the strike was catalyzed by a phone conversation Sunday night among  Jeff Knueppel, SEPTA’s general manager; Dwight Evans,  a longtime Democratic state representative who is running for Congress; and Brown. The conversation resulted in SEPTA offering workers a new proposal that went to the union's executive board at 7 p.m. Sunday. Negotiations continued long past midnight. 

Neither party would disclose details of the agreement. Deon, who credited Evans with helping resolve the impasse, said SEPTA had the money in its budget to pay for the deal, and no new funds were needed.

 Sources with knowledge of the agreement said that workers' wages would rise by about 10.5 percent over five years and that health-care contributions from TWU members would rise by a percentage point or less. TWU workers now pay about $46 a month for health insurance.

The pension dominated the talks, and the changes will eliminate the existing cap limiting how much workers can receive after retirement. The deal will also end the current system of pension calculation in favor of a flat rate based on workers' years of service. Full details were not available Monday.

The agreement now goes to the TWU Local 234 executive board for its blessing. It is set to be ratified in the Nov. 18 vote. The union's national office will then need to approve the contract, a process that will take several weeks. SEPTA's board will also need to approve the contract to finalize the agreement.

 Not long after the strike began, political leaders expressed concern that the lack of public transportation could depress voter turnout in Philadelphia. U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D.,  Phila.) predicted earlier in the week that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would need 460,000 votes in Philadelphia to offset Republican-leaning parts of Pennsylvania and win the state. 

 Negotiations appeared to have reached an impasse Sunday night, with both sides accusing the other of failing to negotiate in good faith. Deon, SEPTA's chairman, had accused union leadership of prolonging a strike even though the authority made an offer that he said addressed most of the union's concerns.

The union countered that SEPTA was stalling negotiations in the hopes that the judge would end the strike.

Then Knueppel, Brown and Evans had their three-way power talk. That jump-started negotiations until midnight, when the hotel hosting negotiations, the Sheraton Philadelphia at 17th and Race Streets, experienced an unexpected disruption and announced that it would cut power to the building from midnight to 4 a.m. for "critical work," according to a statement given to guests.

With the court hearing on the injunction requests set for 9:30 a.m., SEPTA and TWU leadership scrambled back to their offices and kept the dialogue going. A state mediator shuttled between SEPTA's offices at 12th and Market Street and the TWU headquarters on Second Street just south of Spring Garden Street, almost two miles away.

 By 5:15 am Monday, though, Deon and Brown were back at the same table, congratulating each other. The good vibes may have been only surface deep, though. Brown said setting aside a week of accusations and resentment took some work.

“It’s not easy," he said, "but you have to put the personal stuff aside.” 

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