Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett sought emergency action from President Obama to put an end to a workers' strike that shut down regional rail service around Philadelphia.
More than 400 engineers and electrical workers at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority on Saturday morning began picketing after demands for pay increases were not met. The action left travelers to turn to long bus trips, taxi rides or their cars. The ride-share service Uber was offering discounts.
But by afternoon, Corbett announced he was asking Obama to require the workers to immediately resume their duties for up to 240 days. In the meantime, an emergency board would mediate the dispute. Similar mediation has brought no agreement during the last several years.
“It is imperative that parties continue to work toward an agreement for the benefit of the tens of thousands of people who use SEPTA rail every day,” Corbett said in a statement.
“The people of Philadelphia and the surrounding region expect and deserve a safe and efficient rail system to get them to work, medical appointments, school, and recreation,” he said. “I call on both parties to work together, find common ground and place the riders at the forefront of mind in their discussions.”
Under the Railway Labor Act, the governor of any affected state may ask the president to appoint an emergency mediation panel to settle a union's dispute with publicly funded commuter rail services. Obama recently created such a board to help with a labor battle at the Long Island Rail Road, and employees have about a month left in the process before they may strike.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, Division 71 had warned this week that a strike was virtually certain if SEPTA went forward with plans to increase pay beginning Sunday but not apply it retroactively and not to provide the full increase sought by the union.
The union’s National Division President Dennis R. Pierce said this week that SEPTA was cheating his members because the transit authority’s bus drivers union had received a pension increase a few years ago. A similar increase should be built into SEPTA offers to engineers and electrical workers, he said.
“It is most unfortunate that the traveling public in the Philadelphia metropolitan area will be inconvenienced by SEPTA’s actions,” Pierce said this week.
Under the plan unilaterally imposed by SEPTA and scheduled to go into effect Sunday, electrical workers would earn about $29.50 an hour on average, about a $3 increase, the transit authority told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Electrical workers have not been under contract since 2009. They are represented by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 744.
Engineers at the top of the pay chart would earn $32.50 an hour, up about $2.64 per hour, according to the newspaper. The engineers’ contract with the agency expired in 2010.
SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams told the Philadelphia Inquirer that SEPTA officials were "shocked and flabbergasted" by the strike, saying that the agency had offered to extend negotiations for two weeks.
"Now, they are not only not going to get their 11.5% raises, but they are not going to get paid and not going to get their health benefits," Williams told the newspaper.
The regional rail system reported a daily ridership of about 127,000 people in April, or about 60,000 weekday commuters. On Saturday, the system status page on the authority's website showed red octagons next to each of the 14 regional lines, warning that all of the lines had been suspended. The trains run from Philadelphia to surrounding suburbs, including those in Delaware and New Jersey.
The rail system last experienced a strike 31 years ago and it lasted more than three months, the Associated Press reported.
Saturday's strike prompted a barrage of vitriol on social media, directed at the transit authority and the unions.
"On the way from Dunkin' Donuts in Upper Darby to my swim club, the ice in my iced coffee melted!" wrote Facebook user Francis P. McCloskey. "That wouldn't have happened if the Regional Rail service were still running because I would've been able to eat my breakfast on the train! SEPTA sucks!!!"
A Twitter user said simply, referring to the unions, "Not a fan of the IBEW and BLET right now."
"Day 1 of the septa strike," another user wrote. "I cannot go anywhere. I have read 3 books today. I feel as if I have accomplished nothing."
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