Election-Eve End to Transit Strike in Philly

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) — The week-long strike of Philadelphia transit workers ended Monday with the announcement of a five-year contract, just ahead of Election Day and a court battle for an injunction.
     More than 4,700 members of the Transit Workers Union, Local 234, had begun a strike on Nov. 1 after failing to reach a deal with SEPTA, short for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.
     SEPTA announced this morning that the new contract returns employees to work immediately.
     “Service will be phased back in today on the Market-Frankford Line, Broad Street Line subway, city buses and trolleys, with full schedules restored by the start of the service day on Tuesday,” the authority said in a statement.
     SEPTA Board Chairman Pasquale Deon Sr. noted that the deal “provides for wage increases, pension improvements, and maintains health care coverage levels while addressing rising costs.”
     Pensions had been a sticking point during contract negotiations that expired at midnight Nov. 1, causing the shutdown of the City Transit Division.
     Contrasted with unrestrained pension growth for management, the union’s previous contract did not let operator’s pensions grow in relation to their pay once they surpass $50,000 annual income.
     Commencement of the strike sent commuters to regional rail services, private bus companies and rideshare services like Uber.
     Deon thanked “riders for their patience under these extremely challenging circumstances.”
     The tentative contract agreement will now go before TWU Local 234 members for a ratification vote, and to the SEPTA Board for approval.
     On Monday, a website for the union local notes simply: “Tentative agreement reached. We are off strike.”
     Willie Brown, the president of the union local, had complained in a statement Saturday that negotiations were going nowhere “because SEPTA has pinned their hopes on getting an injunction to end the strike.”
     SEPTA had filed a complaint for an injunction on Friday in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas.
     A judge was set to rule Monday on that demand, which accused TWU workers of violating a state law that prevents public employees from putting the public at risk by going on strike.
     Heather Redfern, a public information officer for the court, confirmed Monday that today’s hearing has been canceled in light of the contract.
     SEPTA had complained in its court filing that the work stoppage local taxpayers would “suffer great and irreparable harm” as the strike drags on, facing a clear and present danger to their health, safety and welfare.
     The working poor were hardest hit by the strike, SEPTA said, noting that the strike forced such people to walk “literally miles along congested public streets to get to work.”
     With taxis and ride-sharing services in high demand and bearing even higher fares, those without cars of their own had to choose between walking to work or calling in sick to work.
     “For those individuals, the loss of public transportation service is no mere inconvenience,” SEPTA’s 11-page complaint said.
     SEPTA also blamed the strike for cutting into school attendance, with an estimated 20 percent of city public school students missing classes on Day 1 alone.
     One Philadelphia teacher who spoke about the strike’s effects on her classroom said she knew of one parent who has five children attending five different schools.
     The mother could only take one child to school herself every morning, said the teacher, who spoke to Courthouse News on the condition of anonymity.
     Monday’s contract announcement also comes as relief to voters trying to get to the polls for the Nov. 8 general election.
     Suburban regional rail lines had been running all week, but SEPTA noted in its lawsuit that those trains quickly became overcrowded with city dwellers.
     The increase in passengers lengthened commute times, making it possible that the polls would close Tuesday night before passengers trained home from work.
     SEPTA said the strike also carried serious risks for the elderly who are especially reliant on public transportation to conduct errands, reach medical appointments and to vote.
     “Unless defendants’ strike is prevented and restrained by this court, [their] conduct will continue causing a clear and present danger to the health, safety and welfare of the public,” the lawsuit said.
     TWU President Willie Brown fired back in a statement Saturday, accusing his bosses of using the courts and the upcoming election as “leverage” to avoid giving his union a fair deal.
     “Deon’s plan all along has been to rely on the courts rather than negotiations,” Brown said of the SEPTA board chairman.
     “This is not the way to end a strike or get an agreement,” the release continued. “It’s foolhardy to launch a legal Hail Mary pass designed to make SEPTA’s high-priced lawyers richer and circumvent the collective bargaining process.”
     Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf had jumped into the fray Sunday, announcing via press release that he would file a legal brief in support of SEPTA’s injunction to end the strike.

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