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October 24, 2021

SEPTA workers vote to authorize strike if new agreement can't be reached

The transportation authority's current contract with its transit union expires Oct. 31

Transportation SEPTA
SEPTA union strike vote Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

SEPTA's contract with Transport Workers Union Local 234 expires Oct. 31. If a new contract cannot be reached, a strike could begin Monday, Nov. 1 — stopping bus, trolley, subway and elevated train service in Philadelphia.

SEPTA's transit union has taken another step towards a potential work stoppage, as workers voted unanimously Sunday to authorize a strike if a new contract can't be agreed upon over the next week.

More than 1,000 members of Transport Workers Union Local 234 gathered Sunday for the vote at the Sheet Metal Workers Union Hall in South Philly, according to KYW Newsradio.

A vote to authorize a strike doesn't guarantee that all 5,000 members of SEPTA's transit union will be walking off the job. Rather, it gives union leadership the power to call for a work stoppage if a new deal can't be reached with SEPTA by the end of the month.

"Our members are essential workers who have risked their lives and put their own families at risk during this pandemic," Local 234 President Willie Brown said this week. "We’ve asked SEPTA to address issues related to health and safety and modest economic improvements, but SEPTA has slow-walked the contract talks. We don’t want to go on strike, but we will if it proves necessary."

SEPTA's contract with Local 234 expires Oct. 31. If a new contract can't be reached, a strike could begin Monday, Nov. 1 — stopping bus, trolley, subway and elevated train service in Philadelphia. Regional Rail service would not be impacted by a potential work stoppage.

“SEPTA and representatives from TWU Local 234 have been engaging in a productive dialogue at the bargaining table," SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said in a statement Sunday. "Those discussions will continue this week, and we are hopeful that an agreement can be reached without any service disruptions for riders.”

Contract negotiations between the transportation authority and its transit union began this summer, but significant progress has yet to be made, the union said. Local 234 has been calling for higher wages, guaranteed parental leave, financial assistance for families of workers who died from COVID-19 and improved security on public transit.

"We're not trying to be greedy," Brown said in a video message posted this week. "We're not trying to break the bank. We're not trying to be unreasonable. But these are human rights issues. These are issues we need to keep us and our families safe and these things we're demanding that SEPTA come to the table with to negotiate over."

SEPTA said it has offered a short-term deal that includes pay increases and other benefits, and a long-term proposal that addresses "future uncertainties." The transit authority said it is losing roughly $1 million in revenue per day as ridership continues to remain below pre-COVID-19 pandemic levels.

In a newsletter published Oct. 14, Local 234 slammed SEPTA's latest four-year contract offer as "an insult to our intelligence." The union said the offer did not include guaranteed wage increases, tied seniority to workplace attendance and removed a no lay-off clause. It also claimed SEPTA has refused to bargain over parental leave, which the transit authority does not provide until one has exhausted his or her sick leave.

A possible service shutdown would have a massive impact on Philly residents who depend upon SEPTA for their everyday transportation needs.

The School District of Philadelphia warned this week that a work stoppage "would have a devastating impact" on its ability to continue in-person instruction. 

A potential service shutdown would leave nearly 60,000 students without reliable transportation and many families unable to receive school-provided meals, Superintendent William Hite said. The school district said it would not be able to provide reliable transportation to every student who depends on SEPTA to get to school.

Many district employees also use SEPTA to get to work, but the district is still assessing the impact of a possible strike on staff. Whether some – or all – schools would need to shift to online learning is partly dependent upon a potential work stoppage's impact on teachers.

"The School District of Philadelphia absolutely respects the rights of union members to advocate for themselves, but remains our hope that a strike can be averted," spokeswoman Monica Lewis said in a statement Sunday. "We've said before that a strike would be devastating, severely impacting our ability to sustain in-person learning five days a week for all students, which is something we've worked very hard to make happen this year.

"Again, it is our hope that a strike can be avoided so that we can continue to keep our schools open and best support the social, emotional and academic needs of our students without additional disruption. But we continue to be in communication with city leadership and are working to ensure that we have everything in place to ensure that learning and instruction can continue for our students regardless of what happens next week."

A SEPTA work stoppage last occurred five years ago, when workers walked off the job for six days in 2016 before a new agreement was ratified.

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