Aug. 17--As SEPTA prepares to settle one long-running labor battle, it faces two bigger disputes that could mean a transit strike this year.
In fact, a strike is "very likely," according to the president of the largest union representing SEPTA workers, Transport Workers Union Local 234.
The SEPTA board will meet Monday to give board chairman Pasquale T. "Pat" Deon Sr. the authority to approve a new contract with Regional Rail electrical workers, if the employees ratify the pact.
The 215 electrical workers, who are represented by IBEW Local 744, have until Aug. 25 to return their ratification ballots.
If the workers approve the deal, Deon could sign for SEPTA management, and electrical workers could immediately start collecting 11.5 percent raises and $1,250 signing bonuses.
But 200 Regional Rail locomotive engineers who had been jointly negotiating with the electrical workers have not reached an agreement with SEPTA.
They could strike as early as Oct. 12, when a 120-day mediation period ends, though it is likely that Gov. Corbett would ask President Obama to create a second mediation board, pushing the strike date back an additional 120 days, to February.
Meanwhile, more than 5,000 bus drivers, subway operators, mechanics, and cashiers represented by TWU Local 234 are working under terms of a contract that expired March 15.
They could walk out at any time, once a strike-authorization vote is taken. That vote is likely "in the very near future," said TWU president Willie Brown, who predicted that a strike was all but certain.
"Please understand that there is going to be a strike," Brown said. "I'm still trying to avoid it, but it is almost a matter of 'when,' not 'if.' "
"We're prepared for a lengthy strike," he said.
He declined to say when a strike might occur, but he said the TWU's timing would not be tied to the railroad engineers' schedule.
The main issue for the TWU, Brown said, is a pension system that union leaders say favors managers over workers.
"We put in more money, and they get three times as much out as we do," Brown said.
In a newsletter to workers this month, TWU leaders said a union member earning $50,000 a year and contributing $1,750 annually into the pension fund receives a monthly pension benefit of $2,500 when he retires, while a manager who makes the same $1,750 annual pension contribution would receive a monthly retirement benefit of $7,875.
"Such a huge inequality in pension benefits is totally unjustified among individuals working for the same public agency, operating under the same operating budget," the newsletter said.
SEPTA contends managers' pensions are higher because their salaries are higher.
SEPTA officials said union workers made no contributions to their pension fund until the late 1990s. Since then, contributions have been negotiated to pay for increases in the pension benefits. Union workers now contribute 3.5 percent of their pre-overtime pay to the pension fund.
"Given the difference in annual salary, it stands to reason that the pension benefits would be drastically different," SEPTA said in a statement. "Also, in these examples, it is significant to note that TWU Local 234 members receive a pension equal to 60 percent of their pre-retirement compensation, while management employees receive only 54 percent."
A mediation board appointed by President Obama sided last month with SEPTA management on most of the issues in the years-long labor dispute with the Regional Rail workers.
That prompted the electrical workers to settle, rather than continue to forgo the raises already on the table.
"It was not worth it for us to take this out any further," said Arthur Davidson, general chairman of IBEW System Council 7 and head negotiator for the SEPTA electricians.
The mediation board rejected the railroad workers' argument that they were entitled to retroactive raises and an additional increase based on a pension boost received by the bus drivers' union.
Those two issues were at the heart of the dispute that led to a one-day strike in June by the railroad engineers and electrical workers. The strike, which followed years of fruitless negotiations, ended June 15 after Obama appointed the emergency board.
The engineers are continuing to negotiate, in talks that Stephen Bruno, vice president of the engineers' union, described as "tense."
Both railroad unions, like the other unions that represent SEPTA workers, are watching the TWU talks closely, because the TWU outcome will set the pattern for wages and benefits for all the unions.
Brown said TWU negotiators expect to resume talks with SEPTA officials this week, though he was not optimistic about the outcome.
"When I take a strike-authorization vote, it will be when I'm about at my wit's end," Brown said. "I'm about there."
SEPTA said the TWU has refused for months to negotiate, with just one meeting since talks broke off April 6.
"We urge the union to get back to negotiations to resolve the differences between the parties," SEPTA said in a statement.
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