Philadelphia-area transit union authorized to call strike

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FILE – In this Friday, Oct. 30, 2009 file photo, A SEPTA transit map is shown outside the Pattison subway station near the Wachovia Spectrum, left, and the Wachovia center, right in Philadelphia. The narrative that passengers watched a man rape a woman on a train in suburban Philadelphia last week and “filmed it for their own gratification instead of calling the police” is false, the prosecutor handling the case said Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 as he asked witnesses to come forward. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Workers for the Philadelphia-area transit system have voted to authorize a strike next month if an agreement isn’t reached on a new contract.

The Transport Workers Union Local 234 said a voice vote at a Sunday morning meeting in south Philadelphia approved a motion to allow union leaders to call a strike if an agreement with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority is not reached in a week.

The union represents about 5,000 bus drivers, cashiers, mechanics and other workers providing service for buses, trolleys, the subway and elevated train lines. The current contract expires early Nov. 1, a day before the general election.

“Our members are essential workers who have risked their lives and put their own families at risk during this pandemic,” union President Willie Brown told The Philadelphia Inquirer. He said the union was asking SEPTA to address “issues related to health and safety and modest economic improvements.”

SEPTA said talks have been productive and it hopes to avoid disruptions with agreement on a “fair and financially responsible” pact. The agency said it is still losing about $1 million a day in revenues due to ridership declines with more people working at home during the pandemic, and ridership not expected to return to February 2020 levels.

“We have to find a way to provide fair wages and benefits to employees, while also facing the challenges ahead,” SEPTA said. “That’s why SEPTA has presented two paths to TWU leadership: a shorter-term deal that provides wage increases, a pandemic payment and other benefits, and a longer-term proposal that reflects future uncertainties.”

The Philadelphia School District said in a statement that a walkout “could require some or all of our schools to shift to 100% virtual learning.” Nearly 60,000 students and many staff members rely on SEPTA, and with a driver shortage already, providing transportation to students during a strike “would not be an option,” the district said.

A weeklong strike by SEPTA workers in November 2016 was resolved the day before the general election in that year with Democratic city leaders expressing fears that the walkout could weaken turnout and hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

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