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SEPTA strike is over

(The following story by Larry King appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on November 7.)

PHILADELPHIA -- The seven-day SEPTA strike is over.

After an all-day, all-night push to break the labor deadlock that had crippled area public transit for a week, Gov. Rendell emerged from his office at The Bellevue at 5:30 a.m. with sweet news of a settlement.

"This," the governor proclaimed, “is a very good contract.”

An hour later, subway and elevated trains were clattering again on their local runs through the city. The Norristown Route 100 High Speed line soon followed. And as union workers got the word and headed to their jobs, buses began roaring back to life on scattered routes.

"We’re back; it’s great to be back," SEPTA Board Chairman Pasquale T. "Pat" Deon said as he stood beside Rendell and union leaders. "We will begin running full service probably by the time of the evening rush."

For 400,000 daily riders, the agreement ended seven long days of aggravation, during which they had been forced to crowd onto regional trains, to hire taxis, to impose on friends for rides, or to just sit at home, stuck.

By 7 a.m., 69th Street Terminal was slowly coming back to life, an abandoned picket sign leaning against one wall.

"It’s nice to be back in the regular groove," said John Reusche of Broomall, who works for Wachovia in Center City. "I heard it on the radio. I’ve been checking every morning."

Frank Piergiovanni, 42, of Havertown, said it had been taking him about an hour and 15 minutes each way to get to his Center City job during the strike. He was glad get back to his usual 45-minute commute.

"Every day it was a little different," he said with a smile. "We’ll see how it goes."

For 5,000 members of Transport Workers Union Local 234, the four-year deal marked a resumption of paychecks and benefits - the paychecks slightly larger, the benefits slightly more expensive.

The contract calls for four straight years of 3 percent pay increases. And for the first time, all Local 234 members will be contributing to the cost of their medical insurance premiums, a concession that SEPTA had been determined to win.

But those contributions will not be made on the terms that SEPTA management initially had wished. Instead of everyone kicking in for 5 percent of the cost of their health plans, workers will contribute 1 percent of their pay for up to 40 hours per week.

"We made strides, so did SEPTA, and we’re pleased with this agreement," said Jeffrey Brooks, president of Local 234. "I believe my members and my executive board will ratify this."

SEPTA management has agreed as well to contribute a percentage of their wages toward their own health plans - also a first.

“The dollars that are put out by management in the aggregate will be more than 1 percent. That satisfied the union,” Rendell said. And while managers’ contributions are not included in the contract, “I intend to enforce that as governor and I’m very adamant about that.”

Other details of the contract proposal were not immediately disclosed, but Rendell said improvements also were made to the workers’ pension plan. Helping to make the deal affordable, he said, would be $15 million in savings by pre-paying certain healthcare costs.

SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said the length of the contract would give the transit authority a period of stability in which to make its case for a dedicated source of state funding.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a four-year deal before,” Maloney said. “That allows us to work on the budget in Harrisburg without having to worry about labor contracts.”

Maloney said the relatively short duration of the strike - the last one was 40 days - would not result in much lost ridership. “If the strike lasts a week or less, history shows (the riders) pop right back,” he said.

Local 234 and United Transportation Union 1594 had gone on strike at 12:01 a.m. Oct. 31 after contract negotiations stalled.

Local 1594, which represents about 325 suburban operators, also reached a contract agreement this morning. The terms of its contract are similar to those of Local 234, SEPTA spokesman Jim Whitaker said.

Monday, November 7, 2005

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