The brief Philadelphia commuter rail strike ended Sunday when President Obama stepped in. Officials at the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority said workers returned to their jobs and service was restored to the area.
When the transportation authority’s electricians and engineers failed to reach a contract agreement with SEPTA Friday, the strike began. Service to, 13 commuter train lines from Philadelphia to New Jersey, the suburbs and Philadelphia International Airport was shut down.
The president granted, Governor of Philadelphia Tom Corbett’s request to establish a presidential emergency board, which would facilitate a contract negotiation, and order the 400 union workers back to work. Calling for “a swift and smooth resolution,” Obama ordered the governor to establish a board of three arbitrators. Establishment of the board means union workers are barred from going on strike for up to 240 days during the mediation process.
Service to the Philadelphia region resumed immediately when the rail strike ended. According to Jerri Williams, a spokeswoman for SEPTA, all workers who were scheduled for morning shifts arrived on time. “Some lines with early run starts, such as the Airport Line, are rolling,” she said.
Union members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen complied with the order to return at to work at 12:01 a.m. said Stephen Bruno the union’s vice president. Terry Gallagher, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers said Obama’s involvement was “what we were waiting for.” He said that for five years the union had no agreement and had been trying to negotiate one. “We’re happy we’re here now,” he said.
The unions and SEPTA are not required to resume talks with each other. However, they are required to participate in the board’s negotiation process, which involves written hearings and submissions. Obama has given the board 30 days to produce a report recommending a dispute resolution.
The area was already dealing with commuting complications due to major construction projects, which have been making it harder than usual to get to destinations. Carolyn Tola and three of her friends paid $40 each for Amtrak tickets because they had nonrefundable tickets to the Pennsylvania Ballet. SEPTA tickets cost just $9.
Corbett pleaded with SEPTA and the unions to keep commuters in mind and work together. He said the people of Philadelphia and its surrounding areas expect and deserve a rail system that is safe and effective to get them around.
The dispute came to a breaking point after SEPTA announced it would go forward with a deal Sunday. The terms included immediately increasing electrical workers’ pay by roughly $3 per hour; engineers maximum pay rate would go up by $2.64 per hour.
The unions said they went on strike to force the railway authority to agree to their demands or agree to binding arbitration. The workers are seeking, at least, a 14.5 percent wage increase over a five-year period. SEPTA’s offer was about three percentage points less.
The first rail strike Philadelphia has seen in 31 years ended in less than a day. The last rail strike, in 1983, lasted three months.
By Brandi M. Fleeks