Long Lines & Short Fuses at Philadelphia Transit Strike

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) — Carpooling and regional-rail services helped wary commuters make due Tuesday as a transit-union strike kicked off in Philadelphia, just a week before Election Day.
     “I’ve never seen it like this, and I’ve been here more than 10 years,” said Randall Willis, a sanitation worker, of the crowd of hundreds that evening at Jefferson Station in Center City.
     It had been like this all day, he added.
     Riders estimated that they had waited over an hour at the regional-rail station downtown — one of the few public-transportation options still available in the area after more than 4,700 workers of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority went on strike Tuesday morning.
     “I just need to get to work on time,” said Brian Sanderson of West Philadelphia. “I appreciate people want pensions, but where does that leave me?”
     Pensions have been a sticking point during contract negotiations with the Transit Workers Union, Local 234.
     Contrasted with unrestrained pension growth for management, the current deal does not let operator’s pensions grow in relation to their pay once they surpass $50,000 annual income.
     Representatives from SEPTA did not return a request for comment but the authority’s website did have a recommendation for the thousands of customers frustrated by the strike. Take it up with TWU President Willie Brown, SEPTA said.
     “Mr. Brown walked away from a contract offer that would have provided his members pay raises, enhanced pension benefits, maintained health care coverage levels and continued job security, while also remaining fair and affordable for the taxpayers and riders who fund SEPTA,” the authority said in a statement.
     “SEPTA negotiators stand ready and willing to continue bargaining, and the authority urges Mr. Brown and TWU leadership to return to the bargaining table to negotiate an agreement that will end a severely disruptive work stoppage.”
     With the strike imminent on Monday evening, SEPTA spokespeople and union representatives could not even agree on whether a compromise was close.
     SEPTA had said talks were heading in the right direction in the waning hours of negotiations, while union spokespeople appeared much more pessimistic.
     Negotiations were reportedly ongoing Tuesday. Up and down Market Street, busses from New Jersey Transit as well as from local private businesses could be seen in greater numbers than usual.
     Union activity appeared minimal outside at city hall, with picketers instead gathering outside train terminals, vying to disrupt regional-rail service.
     SEPTA obtained an injunction at 6 p.m. to let train crews operate without interference from striking workers.
     Tim Horras, a city employee and a member of AFSCME Local 47, headed from his municipal job to an early-evening picket outside SEPTA headquarters.
     “I’m here in solidarity,” he said.
     To get to work in Center City this morning, Horras walked about three miles from Kensington.
     Despite the inconvenience caused by the strike, citizens “really have a duty to support the workers,” he said.
     Randy Robinson, a member and former political director of the Transportation Workers’ Union, said his union had done all it could do to meet SEPTA halfway in negotiations.
     Noting that there had been talk of a walkout two years ago, Robinson said the TWU set such plans aside so the two sides could resolve the pension-freeze issue. Only upper management has seen pension increases since then, he added.
     Robinson didn’t seem optimistic about a quick resolution to the strike. “Negotiations aren’t moving fluidly,” he said.
     The strike began at midnight on Nov. 1, just a week before Election Day. If it is still ongoing as Nov. 8 approaches, SEPTA said it will file for a federal injunction requiring employees to return to work.
     Ridesharing service Uber expanded its coverage in Philadelphia in preparation for the strike, increasing the coverage zone of the discounted service UberPOOL by 800 percent from just under 300 square miles to more 2,500.
     Zipcar, a share-based car-rental service, meanwhile is offering $5 hourly reservations through Nov. 4, and the Indego Bikeshare program has added extra bikes to several of its pick-up locations.
     Parking is banned all along Broad Street during the strike, but the Philadelphia Parking Authority is offering flat rates at its garages in the city.
     The New York Times says the union’s last walk-out lasted six days in 2009. SEPTA transit lines reportedly provide a million rides each weekday.