For commuters already struggling with recession, Philly transit strike is a tough sell

By Kathy Matheson, AP
Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Philly transit strike a tough sell in down economy

PHILADELPHIA — Labor experts say striking transit workers in Philadelphia may have a tough time earning sympathy from riders who are losing their own jobs and taking salary cuts.

The city transportation system’s largest union went on strike early Tuesday over wage, pension and health care issues.

Thousands of commuters scrambled to find other ways to work as buses, subways and trolley operations ground to a halt.

Gov. Ed Rendell says he is stunned that the union walked out on a proposed contract that included an 11.5 percent wage increase over five years. He says that’s a great deal in a down economy.

But labor expert Robert Trumble says workers are more determined to hang on to what they have in tough times. He says they also look more critically at income distribution.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Philadelphia transit system’s largest union went on strike early Tuesday, stalling the city’s bus, subway and trolley operations a day after the World Series shifted to New York and forcing thousands of commuters to find other ways to get to work.

The sudden strike by Transport Workers Union Local 234 took many riders by surprise and all but crippled a transit system that averages more than 928,000 trips each weekday. The union represents more than 5,000 drivers, operators and mechanics of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

“We don’t deserve to wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning to find out if there’s a strike,” said Jeffrey Chandler, 49, who had to call a friend for a ride to SEPTA’s regional rail line so he could get to his job as a hotel room attendant.

The union had threatened to go on strike during the World Series. But over the weekend Gov. Ed Rendell ordered the union and SEPTA to remain at the bargaining table or risk consequences. There had been no talk of an imminent walkout as recently as Monday evening.

But Willie Brown, the local’s president, said workers decided to strike after both sides agreed that they had gone as far as they could in negotiations over salary, pension and health care issues. No new negotiations were scheduled Tuesday.

“We’re very anxious to get back to the bargaining table ASAP,” SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said. “We haven’t heard back from them.”

Messages left with the union by The Associated Press seeking further comment on the negotiations were not immediately returned.

The strike announcement came just hours after thousands of fans took the subway home following the Phillies’ victory over the Yankees in Game 5 of the World Series, the last game to be played at Citizens Bank Park this season. Brown said the strike was effective as of 3 a.m. Tuesday.

The doors to subway stations were gated shut Tuesday and no buses crawled the streets in the city’s downtown corridor.

Riders expressed a range of emotions, from anger to resignation.

Aisha Nnoli, a doctor from Upper Darby, had just finished a 12-hour shift at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital downtown when she found the gates closed at her subway stop. When she went to the next station and saw it was also closed, she said she started realizing there might be a strike.

Eventually, she went to a SEPTA information kiosk and found she could get halfway home by using regional rail. But that would still leave her more than 3 miles from her door.

“It’s an inconvenience, obviously,” Nnoli said.

The effects of the strike were mitigated somewhat because Philadelphia schools are closed for Election Day; on an average weekday, about 54,000 public and parochial school students take SEPTA to school. The city also announced Tuesday that it was relaxing parking restrictions in some areas for the duration of the strike.

Public schools spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district, which serves nearly 162,000 students, will be open Wednesday and that employees are encouraged to use a district Web site to arrange car pooling.

“Our expectations are for students and employees to do their best to come to school,” Gallard said. “We’re just hoping for the best here.”

The strike also affects buses that serve the suburbs in Bucks, Montgomery, and Chester counties. Regional rail service was still operating, but trains were delayed as they experienced higher-than-normal crowds.

The two sides had postponed a scheduled Sunday night meeting. They met again Monday at Rendell’s regional office in Philadelphia. Maloney said the talks ended after union negotiators walked out at around midnight.

The union membership voted Oct. 25 to authorize a strike. They have been without a contract since March.

Union workers, who earn an average $52,000 a year, are seeking an annual 4 percent wage hike and want to keep the current 1 percent contribution they make toward the cost of their health care coverage.

SEPTA was offering an 11.5 percent wage increase over 5 years, with a $1,250 signing bonus in the first year, and increases in workers’ pensions, Maloney said.

Given the economic downturn, layoffs and wage freezes in other sectors, the governor said Tuesday that SEPTA’s offer was “sensational.”

“It was a very good contract in the best of times,” Rendell said. “It was, in my judgment, nuts to walk out. I think the SEPTA workers would have jumped at this.”

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

Frank Brinkman, a union member who does electronic work on an elevated SEPTA train, was out on the picket line early Tuesday. He said he was concerned about pension issues and changes to work rules.

“We’ve been ready since March 15,” Brinkman said of the strike. “We’re in here for the long haul.”

He said the union didn’t want to strike, but that SEPTA gave it no choice.

“We don’t want to see anybody suffer,” he said. “We have to stand up for our rights.”

Associated Press writer Kathy Matheson contributed to this report.

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