What's at issue in the SEPTA strike

Sandy Smith's picture

Contrary to most reports in the news media, wages and benefits are not the main bone of contention between the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and striking members of Transport Workers Union Local 234.

While some differences remained between SEPTA's last economic offer and the union's demands, sources close to the union negotiators said that the TWU was willing to accept the agency's offer of raises totaling 11 percent over five years, no raises and a $1,250 signing bonus in the first year, a six-percentage-point (120 percent) increase in SEPTA's contribution to the employees' pension fund (from 5 to 11 percent of annual wages), and no increase in employee contributions to their medical plan.

What they were not willing to accept, these sources said, was SEPTA's proposal to eliminate a longstanding union practice that allows workers in SEPTA's vehicle maintenance and repair shops to pick what equipment they will work on based on seniority.

This is not the first time SEPTA and the union have gone head-to-head over work allocation. In 1998, the agency made a concerted push to get the union to allow it to hire part-time drivers for buses, trolleys and subways, change work assignment policies, and contract out some work. The union strenuously opposed all these moves, resulting in a 40-day strike that snarled traffic in the region and inconvenienced hundreds of thousands of daily riders.

Public sentiment as of now appears to run strongly against the union, though largely on the economic issues most news reports claim are the main disagreement. As ridership has fallen this year because of job losses among SEPTA's customers, many have expressed the opinion that the union is being greedy, or audacious, or out of touch with reality, or some combination of the three, in asking for even more generous raises than the agency has yet offered. But even those who are aware of the real main issue feel no sympathy for union members, largely because of the widespread public perception that they do not perform their jobs well.

All this suggests that it might be a while before SEPTA buses, trolleys and rapid transit trains roll on, over and under the streets of Philadelphia.

Written by Sandy Smith

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