Philly transit talks on hold as strike looms and World Series games approach

By Maryclaire Dale, AP
Friday, October 30, 2009

Philly transit talks on hold as Series approaches

PHILADELPHIA — Talks aimed at avoiding a Philadelphia transit strike were on hold Friday evening, just hours before a threatened strike could disrupt bus and subway services during the World Series.

The two sides discussed wages, pensions and health care until 11 p.m. Thursday, and although negotiations had been expected to resume at 5 p.m. Friday, transit officials later said the union was not meeting with them. Union members have threatened to walk out if a new contract is not reached as early as 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

Dawn Johnson said she would be in a serious bind if SEPTA stops operating. Her two teens take city buses to high school while she drives a younger child to school. Then she boards the subway to get to work downtown.

“I don’t know if I can say I blame them, even though it will put me in a bad place,” said Johnson, 35, a training coordinator and union member herself. “I sympathize.”

SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney called the earlier labor talks “constructive” but stopped short of saying any real progress was made. He said Friday evening the union was meeting with a mediator and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, but talks with the agency management had not started.

Union officials did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The Phillies and New York Yankees are scheduled to play the third, fourth and fifth games of the World Series on Saturday, Sunday and Monday in Philadelphia. About 8,000 people typically take SEPTA to the baseball stadium for games, Maloney said.

The vast majority of the 810,000 people who use SEPTA buses, subway lines and trolleys are trying to get to work, not the World Series.

“It’s really wonderful that Philadelphia is in the World Series,” Maloney said. “But our focus and responsibility as a transit authority is to get upwards of 1 million people a day to work, to school, to doctor’s appointments.”

The union represents about 5,000 bus drivers, subway and trolley operators, and mechanics who make an average $52,000 a year. They are seeking an annual 4 percent wage hike while SEPTA is offering no raises in the first two years and 2 percent raises in the final two years of a four-year contract.

On health care, the union wants to keep its current contribution of 1 percent of salary, or about $10 a week on average. SEPTA wants to raise the contribution to 4 percent, noting that the contributions of city and state workers are likewise going up.

SEPTA drivers and operators earn $14.54 to $24.24 an hour, and reach top pay after four years. Mechanics make $14.40 to $27.59 an hour, SEPTA said. Their contract, which expired in March, has a no-layoff provision.

Ridership has fallen by about 37,000 people a day since July, perhaps because of the high unemployment, Maloney said. The base fare is $2.

About 41 percent of SEPTA’s $1.13 billion operating budget comes from revenues and the rest from subsidies.

A 2005 SEPTA strike lasted seven days, while a 1998 strike hampered the transit system for 40 days.

“I wouldn’t be able to get to work,” said Tonia Gaskins, 34, who makes two round trips on SEPTA each day as she juggles two waitress jobs. “I could catch a bus, but it would take twice as long, and I really don’t have the time.”

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