Will they? Won’t they? 5,000 SEPTA employees could walk off the job

The buses are still running.

For two days, more than 5,000 SEPTA employees have been working without a contract — about 4,700 of them since mid-March.

The union’s representatives have not met with the transit agency since Sunday night, when SEPTA proffered its “final offer,” which included a 4.75 percent wage increase over two years.

Other points of contention have included health care contributions and shifting new employees from a defined benefits pension plan to a defined contributions plan, which transfers the risk of pension investment outcomes from SEPTA to the employee.

SEPTA has made some concessions. After originally saying the agency would not consider a two-year contract, SEPTA’s “final offer” is a two-year agreement. The pension issue is off the table.

What remains is the cost of health insurance to employees.

“We need to see the numbers to figure out whether their demand for a 1 percent charge to our members makes any sense and whether cost savings can be accomplished in other ways,” said TWU Local 234 President Willie Brown in a sit-down with reporters Tuesday.

The latest point of dispute is over whether SEPTA has stalled on turning over detailed information on employee demographics and insurance claims. The union said it has, but SEPTA officials said they are still processing hundreds of pages of information.

SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said the agency hoped to hand it over by the end of this week.

The two sides haven’t taken off the gloves yet. TWU’s board gave Brown its permission to initiate a strike, and he reserved the right to do so in his conversation with reporters. However, the union’s membership has still not held a crucial strike-authorization vote or invited reporters to headquarters to watch employees make their signs for the picket line. SEPTA’s rhetoric has also remained relatively restrained.

But past experience is some guide and the transit agency has seen 12 walk-outs in its collective bargaining history since 1975. The most recent strike, in 2009, lasted six days.

Williams also said the “final offer” is based on the two-year framework that the union requested. She said  the transit agency would be willing to renegotiate terms over a longer time frame.

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