SEPTA and union settle button lawsuit

SEPTA and its largest labor union settled a federal lawsuit last week focused around a rule the authority issued banning a union button subtly criticizing fare increases.

The suit was filed last year by Transport Workers Union Local 234, which argued that SEPTA was unfairly curtailing members’ free speech by prohibiting them from wearing a button that read “Keep Fares Affordable ― Protect the Riding Public.” The button was viewed as a subtle jab at SEPTA management, which at the time was seeking a fare increase.

Local 234 represent bus, subway and trolley operators, as well as maintenance workers.

The union alleged that SEPTA’s ban constituted an illegal “content-based restriction” by SEPTA on what its workers could wear on the job because it was at the same time asking workers to wear a SEPTA-produced “We love SEPTA” buttons.

Last week’s settlement means that on-duty TWU members who work in jobs that involve contact with riders will only be able to wear pin emblems or insignia specifically outlined in the current labor agreement or “otherwise permitted by SEPTA,” according to SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams.

Union members who are off-duty or who don’t interact with the public are free to wear whatever pins or buttons they want, Williams said, adding that the agreement represents a “compromise” on both sides.

She said that, in addition to SEPTA-promoted pins, the authority might permit workers to wear union-produced pins that don’t subtly criticize SEPTA policies.

The suit was filed at the behest of then-union president Willie Brown, who had a confrontational relationship with SEPTA management. Under his leadership, the union went on a six-day strike. In the run-up to his re-election campaign, he attacked SEPTA management in an interview with PlanPhilly.

Current president John Johnson ran a campaign against Brown that criticized the strike and promised better relations with management.

The union didn’t return a call for comment.

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