Talks in Philadelphia transit strike break off

AP News
|
Posted: Nov 07, 2009 10:01 PM

Negotiations aimed at ending a transit strike in Philadelphia broke off Saturday night over disagreement on pensions and the impact of possible national health care overhaul, and Pennsylvania's governor walked away from the negotiations.

"In my 32 years in government, I have never been more disappointed by a negotiation than I am right now tonight," Gov. Ed Rendell told reporters Saturday evening, flanked by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and negotiators for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

Rendell and U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., who brokered negotiations, had announced Friday night that the two sides had a tentative agreement, but the governor said the union raised as many as nine new issues Saturday that would have cost the transit authority an additional $7 million.

Transport Workers Union Local 234 president Willie Brown said the union had agreed only to proposed wage increases and union pension contributions, but not on other contract issues. The union represents about 5,000 bus drivers, subway and trolley operators and mechanics who walked off the job early Tuesday over pension benefits.

Brown said the union wants an independent audit to assure the security of its pension funds, which he has called severely underfunded.

"If we're going to pay more into the pension ... we need to be comfortable about where this money is going," Brown said. "What are they afraid of?"

The union also rejected the SEPTA's call to reopen talks if the company's costs increase due to universal coverage in a possible health care reform plan being debated in Congress.

"We will not be going back to work until these issues are resolved," Brown said.

Both sides have said no new talks are scheduled, and the governor said he has withdrawn from the negotiations.

"I have a state to run," he said. "I have 66 other counties, and I can no longer give all of my attention to one county and this problem."

The governor said he was taking the $7 million in state funding with him but has told the union that he will leave the money on the table if union members are allowed to vote on the company's proposal.

"The members should have a say in this," Rendell said. "It is all of our belief ... that members would vote overwhelmingly to take this contract."

Brown said the union's constitution does not allow him to put the pact to a vote from members without the approval of the executive committee.

"We're not going to put it to a vote. Period," he said. About the governor's removal of the millions in state funding, he said "I am not for sale."

Rendell said the offer was generous especially given the high unemployment and increasing employee share of health care costs in the private sector, and for the union to reject it for those two reasons was "absolute insanity."

"It's not a race to the bottom," Brown said. "Anybody who does not make what we make, my job is to bring them closer to my salary, not to take my salary closer to theirs."

The union had threatened to strike while the World Series was in town last weekend, but negotiators continued bargaining after Rendell threatened "significant consequences" if that happened. The union went on strike hours after the series between the Phillies and Yankees shifted back to New York.

SEPTA's regional railroad is still running because those workers are represented by a different union, but that system has experienced problems of its own this week.

On Wednesday, a railcar caught fire as it headed downtown, causing delays and confusion but no serious injuries. On Thursday, a packed commuter train struck and killed a rail worker during the morning rush, stranding hundreds of riders as lines had to be shut down for hours. Neither accident was related to increased volume due to the strike, SEPTA said.