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SEPTA, TWU officials meet for talks

(The following story by Paul Nussbaum appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on October 27, 2009.)

PHILADELPHIA Negotiators for SEPTA and its largest union met yesterday in an Old City hotel to try to prevent a strike that could halt bus, subway and trolley service just as the World Series comes to town.

Members of Transport Workers Union Local 234 voted Sunday to authorize a walkout, and the union's president said he would call a strike by week's end if agreement on a new contract is not reached.

"This is no joke. This is no hoax. It's going to happen," union president Willie Brown said Sunday. His union has been without a contract since March.

The prospect of a mass transit strike during the World Series, with the attendant disruption and unwelcome publicity, is not attractive to either SEPTA or the city.

"Like everyone else, we're hoping they reach an agreement," said Rina Cutler, the city's deputy mayor for transportation and one of Philadelphia's two representatives on SEPTA's 15-member governing board.

The impending World Series appears to give the union some new negotiating leverage, but a union spokesman says the timing is just serendipity.

"Willie was asked about that, and he said it is just coincidental," said TWU spokesman Bob Wolper. Indeed, the union had announced nearly two weeks earlier it would hold its strike authorization vote on Sunday, and that was before the Phillies beat the Los Angeles Dodgers to qualify for the Series.

Wolper noted that the last TWU strike, in 2005, started on Oct. 31, without a World Series to influence events. That strike lasted seven days.

This year, the World Series is scheduled to move to Philadelphia for Game 3 on Friday, Game 4 on Saturday, and a possible Game 5 on Sunday.

The Eagles also play a football game against the New York Giants on Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field, promising to further snarl traffic in South Philadelphia if there is a transit strike.

SEPTA hasn't "made any specific plans" for dealing with an influx of World Series fans if there's a strike, spokesman Richard Maloney said yesterday.

"Our primary concern is the one million riders who go to work every day, rather than 5,000 to 8,000 people who go to a ball game. That's where our focus is right now."

A strike would not affect Regional Rail service, as those workers are covered by different union contracts.

According to TWU officials, SEPTA management has proposed no wage increase for the first two years of a four-year contract and a 2 percent increase in each of the final two years. It also wants to increase worker contributions to health coverage from 1 percent to 4 percent and freeze the level of pension benefits.

The union wants a 4 percent raise each year and health contributions to remain 1 percent. It is also seeking an increase in pension contributions from $75 to $100 for every year of service.

The TWU also is seeking changes in subcontracting and training provisions to allow members to do maintenance and repair work on buses and trolleys now done by outside contractors.

SEPTA bus, subway, and trolley operators earn from $14.54 to $24.24 an hour, reaching the top rate after four years. Mechanics earn $14.40 to $27.59 an hour.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

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