President Obama halted a strike by transit workers in Pennsylvania on Saturday by ordering an emergency mediation process hours after commuters in the Philadelphia region spent the day scrambling for alternatives to one of the nation's busiest rail systems.
The Presidential Emergency Board will now beginning hearing arguments from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and two unions representing about 400 electrical workers and engineers. The unions want a compensation plan similar to what bus drivers agreed to a few years ago, but the agency hasn't met their demand, they say.
The workers went on strike after midnight Saturday, and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, soon requested that Obama intervene.
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.
In the Pennsylvania case, three arbitrators will deliver a report to Obama within 30 days on how the dispute should be resolved. As the process plays out, workers won't be able to strike again for at least four months. The president has the ability to extend that to as long as eight months if an agreement remains far from reach.
The transit authority said Saturday that it had wanted to avoid the emergency panel and had offered to provide raises beginning Sunday while allowing for two more weeks of negotiation over outstanding details.
Commuter rail service on SEPTA is expected to resume Sunday morning as long as workers abide by the presidential order, the agency said.
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 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.
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.
The regional rail system reported a daily ridership of about 127,000 people in April, or about 60,000 weekday commuters.
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!!!"
But some of the sentiment changed after Obama's intervention.
One Twitter user wrote, "@BarackObama coming up big intervening in this SEPTA strike. My commute thanks you, Mr. President."