A strike by 4700 Philadelphia transit worker that began November 1 has shut down the city’s bus, trolley, and subway service operated by the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA).
The strike was authorized by a unanimous vote of Transport Workers Union Local 234 members on October 16.
Willie Brown, president of Local 234, blamed the strike on management’s refusal to address worker concerns about pay, benefits, and safety.
“Despite months of constructive and innovative proposals from our side of the table, management has refused to budge on key issues, including safety issues that would save lives and not cost SEPTA a dime,” said Brown in a statement about the strike.
Since negotiations began in July, union negotiators have offered proposals that would lead to a fair agreement benefiting both parties, but management has insisted on worker concessions.
When negotiations on economic issues stalled, the union tried to keep them going by proposing safety improvements that wouldn’t cost SEPTA any money.
But according to a union newsletter to members, SEPTA “refused to address non-economic issues affecting operator and public safety. Some of the issues involve contractual provisions the union wants enforced, but SEPTA managers think they can ignore the contract and do as they please.”
One of the non-economic issues that union members wanted addressed is safety problems created by operator fatigue on the job.
Currently, management can schedule a bus, trolley, or subway operator to work after an operator has had as little as nine hours of rest.
Many operators must wake up early in the morning to begin their routes, and some, if not most, work split shifts that can extend their workday up to 12 to 15 hours. Others work late into the night.
Nine hours of downtime is hardly enough rest to refresh operators, whose job requires constant awareness and concentration and who are responsible for the safety of hundreds of thousands of riders a day.
Management’s refusal to negotiate economic issues has also rankled union members.
Management’s position on pension reform has been especially perplexing.
One year ago, SEPTA management raised pensions for themselves by an average of $600 a month.
But when union members proposed changes to the contract that would raise their pensions by a much lesser amount, management claimed that pension increases were out of the question because there wasn’t enough money in the pension fund.
Management is also seeking to increase workers’ cost for health care coverage.
The Philadelphia inquirer reports that SEPTA’s health care proposal would increase worker premium contribution from $552 a year to more than $6000 a year if workers want to maintain their current coverage for their families.
In addition SEPTA is proposing 340 percent to 520 percent co-pay increases for prescription medicine.
Under SEPTA’s proposal, co-pays for generic prescriptions increase from $5 to $22, preferred brands increase from $10 to $62, and non-preferred brands increase from $20 to $106.
SEPTA is also proposing a 5.5 percent wage increase over the five years of the contract with no immediate wage increase.
SEPTA’s proposed wage increase isn’t enough to keep up with the increased cost of living, and the higher out-0f-pocket health care expenses that workers would pay mean that most workers would be taking home less money than they are now.
Before the strike began, Brown urged city and state leaders to pressure the SEPTA Board of Directors to negotiate a fair contract, but SEPTA held firm on its concession demands.
“The (union’s) leadership met with politicians at every level of government in the hope that progressive minded political leaders will press the Republicans in control of the SEPTA board to come to their senses, particularly Pat Deon, the strike happy chairman of the SEPTA Board,” reported Brown to Local 234 members. “It’s important to remember that Deon led the infamous attack on our members in 1998, causing a 40-day strike, the second longest in the Local’s history.
On the eve of the strike, US Representative Bob Brady, a Democrat, tried to broker an agreement but to no avail.
Brady was concerned that the strike could stretch through to Election Day making it difficult for voters who rely on public transportation to go to the polls.
SEPTA announced that if the strike appears to be lasting through Election Day, it will seek an injunction to force workers back to work.