By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - President Barack Obama on Saturday intervened to end a transit strike in the greater Philadelphia area, establishing an emergency board to force the two sides to negotiate.
The move, at the behest of Republican Governor Tom Corbett, came hours after about 440 engineers and electricians who operate trains that connect Philadelphia and its suburbs walked off the job.
“That’s it. The strike is over," said Arthur Davidson, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, one of the two unions on strike.
The strike began at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, when a mandatory 30-day cooling off period expired in contract talks between the workers' unions and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.
The 13 regional rail lines stopped by the strike normally provide about 126,000 trips per weekday, with service stretching from the city's northern suburbs to Wilmington, Delaware.
The strike did not affect Philadelphia's subways, buses and other forms of mass transit that make up the bulk of the local transportation authority's system.
Service was expected to be restored "tomorrow or Monday at the latest," Davidson said. He said the electricians' union was looking forward to presenting its case to a third party. The other union, Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, was not immediately available for comment. Obama acted after Corbett asked him to convene a presidential Emergency Board, which requires the striking engineers and electrical workers to return to the job and forces both sides back to the negotiating table.
“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," Corbett said in a statement.
The Democratic president's decision to intervene in the dispute could prevent workers from striking for up to 240 days during negotiations.
The short strike on Saturday was less disruptive to Philadelphia area residents than it would have been if it continued until the start of the work week on Monday. The rail lines that have been shut down would serve about 48,000 riders on a typical Saturday.
Pension benefits and wages were the main sticking point in the negotiations, said SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams.
The workers have gone without a contract since 2009.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Barbara Goldberg; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Eric Walsh and Bernard Orr)