Camera shy: Union opposed to SEPTA plan to video monitor employees

SEPTA’s largest union is vowing to fight a proposal for live video monitoring of the transit authority’s employees.

Representatives from Transport Workers Union Local 234 will meet with management this week to discuss a the proposed installation of live-feed cameras on city buses and in maintenance shops.

Invoking George Orwell’s 1984, TWU president Willie Brown accused SEPTA of acting like Big Brother and promised to fight the idea tooth and nail. “This is something we can’t accept as far as a union, and we are prepared to fight them with every tool available to us over this,” said Brown.

There are already cameras on all of SEPTA’s buses and trains, plus cameras in all of the authority’s stations. But authority managers only review those cameras when there’s been a reported incident, such as a crime or a crash. Brown says the union is fully supportive of those cameras, acknowledging they help protect union workers. But Brown says he worries that constant video monitoring will be used to unfairly punish employees for minor infractions.

“You have an intimidation factor going on. Suppose you have an operator that puts in a complaint. Now, all of a sudden, management goes after that employee,” said Brown.

“I’m a realist. If anyone says they do everything completely right every day all day, it’s a lie,” added Brown. Brown complained that SEPTA managers had capriciously gone after union employees for technical, yet inconsequential, violations of worker rules. He cited an example of a bus driver who was caught on camera glancing at his phone when the bus was parked between runs and he was inspecting the vehicle’s seats for trash. Brown said he worried that such technical violations — SEPTA drivers are supposed to exit a vehicle before using their phones — would be used to keep workers from filing complaints.

In a statement, a SEPTA spokesperson downplayed the size of the proposal.

“SEPTA has had early discussions on conducting a pilot program with live-feed cameras on a small number of buses, in an effort to enhance safety and security for riders and employees.  The cameras will also provide enhanced training opportunities similar to having a simulator.

As a separate project SEPTA will be installing fixed cameras at its maintenance locations, with the aim of improving security at these facilities.”

SEPTA management and the union will sit down Wednesday to discuss the proposal. If they can’t agree there, TWU counsel Bruce Bodner said he may bring a complaint before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. The two sides discussed cameras during the strike negotiations last year. Bodner says that means SEPTA management has waived the ability to treat live video monitoring of employees as a management prerogative, meaning it would be an issue that must be negotiated through collective bargaining.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal