SEPTA workers to vote on union contract following agreement

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Transport Workers Union Local 234 President Willie Brown speaks to union members Sunday, Oct. 24, following a strike authorization vote.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Transport Workers Union Local 234 members will vote Friday to ratify an agreement reached late last week between labor leaders and SEPTA.

The deal prevented a strike that could have halted nearly all public transportation in Philadelphia early Monday morning, disrupting in-person classes for students and commutes for essential workers and others.

Officials from both sides said the tentative two-year agreement, announced Friday, includes modest wage increases, paid parental leave and a pandemic bonus.

Negotiations, which began over the summer, picked up after TWU Local 234 members authorized a walk-out Oct. 24 if no contract was in place by the end of the month, union president Willie Brown said.

The strike vote “scared the wits out of SEPTA’s negotiating team,” Local 234 told members in a newsletter.

SEPTA’s board will consider the contract at its Nov. 18 meeting, provided it is ratified by employees this week.

“This was a difficult time to negotiate a contract,” Brown said in a statement Friday. “SEPTA is facing unprecedented challenges.”

The deal, if approved, will expire in October 2023, not long before the authority will run out of the $1.5 billion it has received in federal coronavirus relief money.

There’s some uncertainty as to what will happen when that funding is gone. SEPTA has consistently been running a $1 million-a-day loss, and ridership numbers are still a bit less than half of pre-pandemic figures.

SEPTA leaders were hesitant to commit to a detailed longer-term contract with that in mind. The authority hopes to get more insight about the future of work-from-home and other trends before the sides return to the negotiating table, spokesman Andrew Busch said.

In the meantime, workers represented by Local 234 will receive a 3% raise in mid-December and another 3% increase the following year.

Workers will get a pandemic bonus of $1 for every hour worked between March 2020, when COVID-19 arrived in Philadelphia, and March 2021, up to a maximum of $2,200, according to Local 234.

In addition, pregnant union members who have been on the job for at least a year will be allowed to take four weeks of paid leave. Other workers will be granted two weeks of paid parental leave.

Juneteenth, a holiday celebrated June 19 that commemorates when the last African American slaves were informed that they were free, has also been added to the contract as a paid day-off for SEPTA workers, officials said.

Employees will not have to pay more for medical benefits under the contract, and no changes were made to seniority protections, the union said, despite a proposal earlier this month to award additional years of service to workers who did not use sick days.

The contract retains SEPTA’s no layoff clause, according to Local 234.

Nothing specific was spelled out in the tentative contract to address employee safety concerns or to authorize payments to the families of workers who died as a result of COVID-19, Busch said. Both had been stated Local 234 priorities.

Local 234 includes more than 4,700 bus, trolley and subway operators, as well as mechanics, cleaners and other frontline workers.

Unions representing other SEPTA employees have contracts expiring in the coming weeks. The Local 234 City Transit Division agreement is usually used as a blueprint for those deals.

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