PA: SEPTA to Impose Terms on Regional Rail Workers; Union Says Strike Likely

June 10--SEPTA moved Monday to impose management's terms in a long-running labor dispute with Regional Rail workers, which union leaders said could prompt a strike that would halt all commuter rail service at 12:01 a.m. Saturday.

SEPTA's goal apparently is to risk a strike now, when ridership is lower, than next winter, when more commuters and students rely on the system. Regional Rail trains carry about 126,000 riders a day.

"We need to get an agreement now," SEPTA general manager Joseph Casey said Monday. "Seven thousand other SEPTA employees have already accepted this wage package, but these 400 are holding out."

SEPTA chief labor relations officer Stephanie K. Deiger on Monday alerted union leaders that SEPTA had sent letters on Friday to Regional Rail engineers and electrical workers, describing its intent to give them raises proposed by SEPTA effective next Sunday.

The unilateral move by SEPTA "is probably going to mean a strike," said Stephen Bruno, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

A strike now could be relatively brief, at least initially, as Gov. Corbett is prepared to ask President Obama to intervene if the workers walk out, the governor's representative on the SEPTA board said.

Corbett could ask Obama to create a presidential emergency board to mediate the dispute, compelling the Regional Rail workers to return to work for 240 days.

"No one wants a work stoppage on our rails or buses, not the board or the employees of SEPTA, and most certainly not the riders," said Thomas Jay Ellis, a Center City lawyer who represents Corbett on the SEPTA board. "The governor understands that there are no winners should SEPTA engineers go out on strike."

Ellis said that he did not know how quickly a presidential board could be appointed, but that the region's congressional delegation had been alerted.

"We're going to be dealing with the president's people, but when you're dealing with Washington, you never know," Ellis said.

If the railroad workers strike Saturday, they will not be joined by SEPTA bus and subway workers, said Willie Brown, president of Transport Workers Union Local 234, the largest of SEPTA's 17 unions.

The TWU's 5,000 members, whose contracts expired earlier this year, have authorized a strike, but they will not walk out yet, Brown said.

"It wouldn't affect us," Brown said, noting that the TWU is "exploring our legal options" in its efforts to resume contract negotiations with SEPTA. The two sides have not met since April 6.

The last strike by SEPTA railroad workers was a 104-day walkout in 1983.

At issue is a long-running dispute over the value of an increase in transit workers' pension benefits and the railroad unions' request for retroactive wage increases to the date their contracts expired.

The 210 electrical workers, represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 744, have been without a new contract since 2009, and the 220 engineers, represented by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, have been without a new contract since 2010.

The electrical workers will get a raise of 11.5 percent Sunday, and the engineers will get a 5 percent raise Sunday and an additional 3.5 percent raise on July 6, SEPTA said in its letter.

Wages for electrical workers would increase by approximately $3 to $29.50 an hour, on average. Electrical workers on average earn $55,120 a year.

The top wage rate for engineers would increase by $2.64 per hour, to about $32.50 an hour. Engineers, who typically work six-day weeks with extensive overtime, now earn an average of $95,290 a year, SEPTA said.

"These wage increases are consistent with the pattern of wage increases SEPTA has negotiated since 2009 with all other unions representing its employees," Casey wrote in his letter to the workers. "These wage increases are being put into effect in an effort . . . to bring closure to the negotiations.

"We see no reason to continue to delay granting these increases when most other SEPTA employees, including those on Regional Rail, have already received the same percentage increases."

Union leaders said Monday the increases were unacceptable.

"We could have had that 41/2 years ago. This is nothing new," said Arthur Davidson, general chairman of IBEW System Council 7.

The rail unions contend they should also receive retroactive pay that would be worth about $10,600 each for the electricians, as well as the value of a pension boost they contend is worth a 3 percent hike.

Casey said SEPTA never pays retroactive raises. And he said the $4 million annual pension increase given to TWU workers in 2009 was negated by an increased pension contribution required from the TWU members.

SEPTA negotiators have refused to provide financial documents to prove their pension claims, said Stephen Bruno, BLET vice president.

"We've waited five years for those documents," said Bruno. "We can't make a full analysis of the economic value if they refuse to give us the documents."

Bruno said the standoff "is probably going to mean a strike. . . . It's probably the fastest way to settle this dispute."

The unions offered to resolve the dispute through binding arbitration, but SEPTA declined.

BY THE NUMBERS

$32.50

Top hourly wage for SEPTA's 220 engineers, after a $2.64 increase.

$29.50

Average hourly wage for SEPTA's 210 electrical workers, after a $3 increase.

104

Number of days the last strike by SEPTA railroad workers lasted in 1983.

pnussbaum@phillynews.com

215-854-4587

@nussbaumpaul

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