Philly transit strike in 6th day; no new talks

AP News
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Posted: Nov 08, 2009 4:33 PM

Commuters in the City of Brotherly Love have been told to gear up to begin a second week of finding other ways to work following the collapse of a proposed deal to end a six-day-old strike by about 5,000 bus drivers, subway and trolley conductors and mechanics.

The largest union representing workers of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority wants an independent forensic audit of pension funds. The union is also rejecting language that could reopen the contract if SEPTA's costs increase due to national health care reform.

SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said the ball is in the union's court "to come back to the table and sign the contract."

"We feel badly for our riders," he said Sunday. "They're being unnecessarily hurt in many ways across the five-county area. There are countless thousands of people who are suffering, and it's unnecessary."

Jamie Horwitz, spokesman for the Transport Workers Local 234, said the two sides had reached agreement on monetary and pension issues, but differences remained on the health reform provision and union president Willie Brown's call for an audit.

"Like riders, we want a resolution to this," Horwitz said Sunday. "We also have a responsibility to our members."

Pensions have been the major issue in the strike and "there are many questions about the way the pension was managed by SEPTA," Horwitz said.

Brown told reporters Saturday night that if the agency did not agree to an audit "then I guess we're going to be here for a while."

The health care language has taken on new urgency following the U.S. House's approval of a health care reform bill late Saturday, Horwitz said. The provision could lead to another strike or another lengthy round of negotiation before the five-year agreement runs its course, he said.

"That's not acceptable to the union and we would like to see a contract that is binding for the length of the agreement," he said.

Both sides said no new meetings were scheduled.

Gov. Ed Rendell, who had been brokering the talks, said he was leaving the negotiations and taking $7 million in state funding with him unless union members are allowed to vote on the agency's proposal on Monday.

But Brown told reporters that could not happen for "the same reason the president of the United States would not bypass the Congress and the Senate and take it to the people and say 'Lets vote.' That's not what our constitution says. Our constitution says it goes through the executive board.".

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

Regional SEPTA trains have continued to run because their workers are represented by a different union, but the system has seen packed trains and problems of its own. A railcar heading downtown caught fire Wednesday, causing delays and confusion but no serious injuries. The next day, a train struck and killed a rail worker, stranding hundreds of riders during the morning rush hour. The agency said neither accident was related to increased volume due to the strike.