City prepares itself for strike Tuesday as SEPTA, union cannot seem to agree on anything

“I’ll be shocked if we don’t have a strike.”  

Willie Brown doesn’t mince words. “Honestly, nothing’s working. The smallest issues become big items,” says Brown, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents 4,700 SEPTA bus, trolley and subway operators.

Friday night, TWU members will make signs for the picket lines at the union hall, preparing for a strike November 1st if there isn’t a deal by then. Brown describes TWU’s pension plan as “unfair,” and says the union has sacrificed wage increases for better health care coverage. He paints management as indifferent to workers’ basic needs, like having enough time to use the bathroom.

Nonsense, says SEPTA Chairman Pasquale Deon. “The TWU members [have] the highest paid public sector wages in Philadelphia. They also maintain the top of the line benefits and they also have the no lay off clause.”

“Based on what they have now, with an average salary of $68,000, with full benefits, with a full pension, we think it’s fair,” said Deon.

According to Deon, SEPTA wants to avoid a strike. “We’re down to the last day[s], which is usually what happens, but Willie [Brown] and the union guys tend to want to make this thing a last minute thing,” said Deon. “We have no desire to have a labor strike [during] the election.”

If there is a strike, the City of Philadelphia is gearing up to prepare for it. City offices will remain open and employees will be expected to work, said Mike Dunn, a spokesman for Mayor Jim Kenney. The city is encouraging all residents to find alternative modes of travel. Twelve buses will provide a free shuttle service along the Broad Street and Market-Frankford Lines, but only for city employees and jurors — all riders will need to show proper identification and documentation.

Parking will be banned on Broad Street between Spring Garden and South Streets — not just median parking, all parking. Cars will be allowed to use bus zones for dropping off and picking up passengers, but they cannot park there.

According to Dunn, Uber is finalizing plans to offer discounted rates near SEPTA stations. Lyft plans to offer discounts to new users. Indego bike share will increase capacity at four stations in Center City, plus offer a valet service at the Municipal Services Building — meaning that riders won’t have to worry about finding an empty dock there to drop off bikes.

SEPTA released its Service Interruption Guide earlier this week.

DEVIATED SEPTA – WORKERS AND MANAGEMENT FAR APART ON ISSUES

On pensions, an issue SEPTA and TWU set aside the last time they negotiated a work agreement in 2014, the two sides seem far apart heading into the final weekend of negotiations before the deadline. Union employees pay 3.5 percent of their paycheck into the pension fund. The monthly retirement benefit is calculated in part on how much they make, but managers do not have a $50,000 cap on their pensions. TWU calls that unfair; SEPTA calls it incentivizing.

“This is a way to really encourage [TWU workers] to move up within the organization,” said SEPTA Deputy Manager Rich Burnfield. Burnfield said that about half of SEPTA’s managers were promoted from hourly positions, about a quarter of which were once represented by TWU. Many of them can be found in bus operations and maintenance management, where 92 percent of supervisors came from hourly ranks.

“For a high school educated guy to come out and have this ability to move into management, it’s a great career opportunity for everybody in the city,” said SEPTA Chairman Deon.

“I don’t apologize to nobody for that,” said Brown in response. “I don’t apologize for my wages. I don’t apologize for my benefits.” Brown went on to question SEPTA’s sincerity, pointing to management pension reforms last year. According to SEPTA, those reforms will save $180 million over 30 years. According to Brown, the changes led to immediate pension benefit increases of $500 to $1,000 a month for retiring managers.

SEPTA has a $1.2 billion pension obligation that is around 62 percent funded. The authority contributes around $98 million a year into the fund.

SEPTA also stressed the need to share the burden of rising health care costs. Union workers contribute one percent of their weekly wages (before overtime) to the cost of health care. According to Burnfield, that averages out to $46 a month, which only covers around 4 percent of the premiums. Health care costs ate up around 27 percent of SEPTA’s $1.4 billion operating budget in its last fiscal year.

According to TWU, SEPTA proposes replacing that plan with less comprehensive coverage and allowing employees to upgrade plans by paying more per month. The union seems unwilling to budge on health care benefits without gaining somewhere else, such as on quality of life issues.

Brown says those non-economic issues have been a sticking point so far in negotiations, keeping the sides from discussing the larger disagreements. Brown argued that the needlessly punishing schedules imposed by SEPTA management on bus, trolley and subway operators kept them from getting enough sleep, threatening the public’s safety.

“You’d think that a company of this size would want to make sure people out there is fresh, doing the work,” says Brown. “They basically want somebody to be murdered first before they say, ok, we might have a problem.”

Burnfield dismissed TWU’s safety complaints as negotiation tactics. “[Safety] is something that you don’t wait until contract negotiations to discuss,” said Burnfield. “That’s something we talk about day in and day out at SEPTA.”

According to Burnfield, SEPTA has reduced operator run times and hours of service. He says the current contract’s work rules ensure enough downtime between shifts. But, according to Brown, those work rules have enough leeway that some vehicle operators can wind up on-call (waiting to start driving) and driving a run for nearly 24 hours.

As for bathroom breaks—TWU says the 5 minute breaks aren’t long enough, especially when traffic and construction delays can eat into that turn around time at the end of a route. Burnfield said that SEPTA constantly monitors and tweaks schedules to adjust times.   

Both sides said they would remain at the table and negotiate over the weekend. Representatives for Mayor Jim Kenney and Governor Tom Wolf said they were keeping track of the negotiations but declined to comment further. Congressman Bob Brady, who chairs the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee, declined to comment.

RIDERS READY ALTERNATIVE ARRANGEMENTS

As Monday’s midnight deadline to strike a deal and avert a transit strike steadily approaches, Philadelphians are preparing themselves with alternative commute plans.

So far, city residents are keeping a healthy sense of humor about the looming walk out.

“It’ll be halloween so my broomstick will still be out of storage, or maybe just the bike or the shoelace express,” Luke Christensen wrote in a Facebook post

“Walking to work. having no social life,” wrote Alon Abramson. “I will drive my son to school (1.7 miles), return home, park the car, and then walk to work (1.9 miles). We’re hoping to find another family he can get a ride home with in the afternoons,” said Shani Ferguson.

“I am going to have to brave the world of biking,” wrote Dan Pearson. “It’s $15/mo for bike share so it’s the obvious right choice financially, I’m just afraid of getting hit.”

The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia plans to set up a table and pop-up tent near the Municipal Service Building Indego station to greet bicyclists, and provide advice on city biking. During the last TWU strike in 2009, the Bicycle Coalition found that the number of cyclists jumped 38 percent.

 

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