SEPTA union head argues transit agency can afford better terms

Transit Workers Union local president Willie Brown has made his first public comments since contract negotiations with SEPTA broke down earlier this month.

On whether the union and SEPTA can avert what would be the first transit strike in almost five years, Brown said, “It’s up to SEPTA. If they come to the table serious about negotiating then we’ll be there ready to negotiate.”

The two sides have not met face-to-face since March 13.

“I’m going to work as long as I can until you know, it comes to a point, when there’s no reason to negotiate anymore, then I’ll do what I have to do,” Brown said.

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The 4,700 members of Brown’s TWU Local 234 have been working without a contract since the middle of March.

Brown said any strike would not take place until three remaining, smaller contracts expire the first week of April.

“I believe we go out together, we come back together.”

If the two sides do not reach a deal by the first week of April, the total number of SEPTA employees working without a contract would top 5,000.

SEPTA declined to discuss terms of contract negotiations publicly. The sticking points according to Brown  remain health care costs and employee pension contributions.

While Brown argues SEPTA is in better financial shape than in years past, SEPTA Spokeswoman Jerri Williams said new money recently allocated by the state of Pennsylvania comes with dedicated purposes.

“That’s just for infrastructure and new vehicles,” Williams said. “We have the same amount of money that we’ve always had to pay for salary and benefits. There has been no increase other than somewhat of an increase because of higher ridership.”

Williams said fares make up 40% of SEPTA’s operating budget.  She said the two sides could come back to the table as early as this week.

There have been twelve separate transit strikes in Philadelphia since 1975. The most recent, lasting a week, began in the early hours of Election Day of 2009.

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