SEPTA and its largest union have reached a tentative agreement on a new contract, averting a damaging strike that would have shut down Philadelphia’s transit system as it struggles to recover from a steep drop in the traffic caused by the pandemic.
For the region, the deal immediately removes the headache of an extra-congested Monday commute to work and disruption to Philadelphia’s public schools, where 60,000 students and about 20,000 teachers and staff depend public transport.
Members of Transportation Workers Local 234 will receive annual raises of 3% in each of the two years of the contract, as well as a one-time pandemic risk pay of $1 for each hour worked between March 15 2020 and March 15 of this year. , up to a maximum of $2,200. They also got paid parental leave.
“I’m very happy that we were able to get along without a strike,” said Willie Brown, president of TWU Local 234. “Our members are essential workers moving to Philadelphia who have risked their lives, putting their own families at risk, during this pandemic.”
The union and the transit authority announced the deal in separate statements around 7:30 a.m. Friday.
The contract is “fair to our employees and fiscally responsible to SEPTA,” Board Chairman Pasquale T. Deon Sr. said in a statement.
Then, the proposed contract must be ratified by union members and approved by SEPTA’s Board of Directors. A TWU ratification vote is scheduled for Nov. 5. The regional transit agency’s board will vote Nov. 18, Deon said.
A deal was reached late Thursday night after several days of intensive negotiating sessions at a hotel in the Old Town, interspersed with more informal talks and proposed exchanges of terms. The existing pact was due to expire at 12:01 a.m. on November 1.
TWU got a lot of what he wanted, but not everything.
The union had demanded a four-year contract with wage increases and retroactive pandemic risk pay. He also failed to secure increased survivor benefits for the families of the 11 SEPTA frontline workers who died of COVID-19, which was an emotional rallying point for many TWU members.
Transit authority negotiators offered a two-year deal with a raise and bonus or a four-year deal tying wage increases to SEPTA’s ability to pay them. With ridership yet to fully rebound from its pandemic low and a cloudy picture of the direction travel and transit use patterns are taking, the agency said, it could not afford to guarantee salary increases so far into the future.
“It was a tough time to negotiate a contract,” Brown said. “SEPTA is facing unprecedented challenges. … And, without a doubt, the solidarity of our members has been the key factor. The talks became much more productive after last Sunday’s unanimous strike vote.
TWU represents approximately 5,000 people working on the city’s transit system. Members are bus, tram and metro drivers, as well as mechanics and station cashiers. Depending on job title and time served, union members earn between $16 and $36 an hour and are eligible for overtime.
Union members have also sought better security on the SEPTA system, given the high-profile crimes, abuses and assaults against members, some from passengers frustrated with federal mask requirements in transit. Security was not addressed in the agreement; union leaders said they would continue to pressure SEPTA on the issue.
The proposed contract also includes, for the first time, two weeks of paid parental leave upon the birth or adoption of a child, TWU said. A separate leave provision for pregnancy or childbirth was also included; union members must now use their sick leave.
Without the federal relief money, SEPTA would have had an operating deficit of about $287 million for the three months ending Sept. 25, according to the agency’s latest public financial statements.
Systemwide, ridership is at 47% of pre-pandemic levels, and SEPTA says it continues to lose $1 million a day. It received $1.5 billion in operating funds from three federal pandemic relief payments — likely enough, officials say, to last through 2023.
Future state funding is uncertain. Parliament has failed to replace an expiring public transit funding formula. SEPTA does not have the authority to levy taxes within its five-county territory, unlike many large transit agencies in the United States.
Since 1975, SEPTA and its customers have experienced 13 separate transit strikes that disrupted service, many called by the historically militant TWU. The last was a six-day walkout five years ago.
“It was a very unusual negotiation – I’ve never seen one like this,” said Francis Ryan, assistant professor of labor history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, who has written two books. on the Philadelphia unions. “The pandemic and all that comes with it has really amplified what transit workers are going through and what they are delivering. How do you not sympathize with them?
There has been a wave of strikes across several US industries this fall, and polls show more support for unions than at any time since 1965, he said. “There just seems to be a different vibe going on right now,” Frankford native Ryan said.
And the federal relief money “positioned SEPTA to get the deal done,” said U.S. Representative Dwight Evans (D., Pa.), a former SEPTA board member and sponsor of the legislation. He urged a settlement in numerous phone conversations with agency chief executive Leslie S. Richards, Deon, Brown and city officials.
Riders, transit workers and the authority all shared an interest in avoiding a service disruption, Evans said. “The incentive is the economy, the stability, the need to make things work in the city,” he said.
SEPTA’s work on labor relations is not complete for the year. A contract with United Transportation Union Local 1594 expires Nov. 18. It covers 365 bus, streetcar, and light rail operators on commuter bus lines, two streetcar lines in Delaware County, and the Norristown high-speed line.
Contracts with two units also represented by TWU Local 234 expire next month: a pact with 175 suburban maintenance workers Nov. 18 and an agreement with 222 bus operators and mechanics based in Montgomery Counties and Bucks on Nov. 23.
Typically, these contracts closely mirror agreements with workers in TWU’s transit division.