Button ban lands SEPTA in federal court

A disagreement with its largest union over some buttons has landed SEPTA in federal court.

Transport Workers Union Local 234 is suing SEPTA for banning its members from wearing paraphernalia that the agency feels is critical of the recent fare hike.

The complaint alleges the transit agency violated union members’ free speech rights under the Pennsylvania Constitution and their First and 14th Amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The union wants the court to rescind SEPTA’s button ban and seeks unspecified damages. It represents about 3,000 employees on the authority’s transit side.

TWU leadership began distributing the buttons — which feature the union’s logo and the words “Keep Fares Affordable — Protect the Riding Public” — April 15, while the fare increase was still being debated.

The complaint provides a window into union leadership’s dissatisfaction with the fare hike. It says the increase put a burden on riders already suffering through tough economic times and adds that the union wanted to distance itself from the increase and express “sympathy” to riders.

It says SEPTA announced there would be a fare increase a day after the union’s six-day November strike ended, leading many to assume the union was somehow responsible for the upcoming hike.

The complaint also alleges that SEPTA announced the button ban — which was issued a day after the union started handing the buttons out — despite the fact that SEPTA had been encouraging union members to wear “We love SEPTA” buttons and has made vehicle operators wear nametags.

The union says this alleged double-standard represents an unconstitutional “content-based restriction” on workers’ free speech rights. The rule only bans the union buttons but allows SEPTA workers to continue wearing the “We love SEPTA” buttons.

According to the union, the rule was unilaterally imposed by SEPTA and isn’t part of the union’s contract.

In the complaint, the union also heavily criticizes the way in which the fare increase was passed by the SEPTA Board. It said a public hearing SEPTA held on April 19 was “a sham” and may not have met the requirements set out in the laws governing fare increases.

It said SEPTA failed to provide attendees with an analysis of SEPTA’s current operating deficit and with enough copies of the proposed budget.

TWU counsel Bruce Bodner said the lawsuit points to a larger problem and is “symbolic of the adversarial state of labor relations at SEPTA.”

SEPTA general manager Joe Casey appeared to indicate the same thing when he told a May meeting of the Citizen Advisory Committee that he wanted “different union leadership” to emerge from TWU elections this year.

Casey backed away from those statements the next day and SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams declined to respond to Bodner’s comment, though she said that “when a SEPTA employee wears a SEPTA uniform, management has the right to determine what else is worn by that employee at that time.”

The case was filed in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court in April, but SEPTA filed a motion in late June to move it to federal district court, saying the case touches on federal constitutional issues.

SEPTA has also filed a motion to dismiss the case on technical legal grounds and denies it infringed on union members’ civil rights.

In addition to SEPTA, the suit names Frances G. Keating, Richard J. Hanratty Jr. and Michael R. Liberi as defendants. Keating is SEPTA’s chief labor relations officer, Hanratty is its chief rail transportation officer and Liberi is its chief surface transportation officer.

A hearing is scheduled in August.

In other news, SEPTA has filed suit against Center City personal injury firm Mednick Mezyck and Kredo for allegedly violating SEPTA’s trademarks as part of its marketing.

The suit, filed in federal district court two weeks ago, also names partner Michael S. Mednick as a defendant and accuses the firm of trademark infringement.

The firm uses the vanity phone number 888-SEPTA-LAW and owns the domain name mySEPTAlawyer.com, which forwards to the firm’s website.

SEPTA says the phone number and the website, which lists the partners as “SEPTA lawyers” misleads consumers because the lawyers don’t work for SEPTA and the number and website dilute the authority’s brand.

It also accuses the firm of using trademarked SEPTA logos on its website and in advertisements in the Philadelphia Metro newspaper.

SEPTA contacted the firm on March 15 notifying it of the alleged trademark infringement, but the firm denied the allegations, according to the complaint.

SEPTA wants an injunction that would prohibit it from using its trademarks. It’s also seeking control over the vanity phone number and the domain name mySEPTAlawyer.com and is asking for unspecified damages.

Mednick didn’t respond to a request for comment and Williams had no further comment.

Contact the reporter acampisi@planphilly.com

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