Memories of the last SEPTA strike and a different “mood” in Harrisburg were the impetus behind a bill introduced last week to prohibit SEPTA employees from going on strike.
Pa. State Rep. Kate Harper, R-61, reintroduced the legislation, which did not get out of committee the first time around in 2009. She said she thought it had a better chance this time.
House Bill 2109 would add SEPTA workers to the list of public employees prohibited from striking in Pennsylvania. Currently on the list are police, firefighters, court employees and guards at state prisons and mental hospitals, according to a press release from Harper’s office.
“The mood in the commonwealth and the General Assembly is different now,” Harper said, referring to an amendment passed quickly in the Legislature earlier in the month to strike the exception for union activities from a law regarding harassment and stalking. “I think I can get it out of committee and onto the floor.
“There are two things going on,” she said. “We just passed a big transportation bill. We care about SEPTA; it’s very heavily subsidized. It’s tax money we’re talking about.
“Shutting (the transit system) down willy-nilly is a bad idea,” Harper said. “I want to change the view of the mass transit workers.”
During the six-day strike in 2009, SEPTA workers walked off the job at 3 a.m., “stranding hospital workers” in the city who were unable to get home, she said, which is not something she would like to see repeated.
Harper equated a transit strike to “holding a gun to the head of all riders and businesses that depend on people to get to work.”
“When you don’t have the right to strike, you have to deal with the public image of who you are; you have to depend on the public to support you.”
The contract with Transit Workers Union Local 234, which represents the 4,713 bus drivers, subway operators and mechanics in SEPTA’s City Division, expired March 14. Contracts with maintenance workers, bus and trolley operators, conductors and mechanics in several divisions operating in the suburbs will expire April 1 and April 6.
The transit agency negotiates 17 different contracts with 14 unions, spokeswoman Jerri Williams said.
No negotiating sessions with TWU, Local 234 had been scheduled as of March 21, Williams said, but “we continue to be ready to start talking again.”
The possibility of the entire SEPTA transit system being shut down has also reared its head, as the Regional Rail engineers have been operating without a contract since July 14, 2010. A contract with Regional Rail conductors was renewed in the fall of 2013, Williams said. The engineers’ contract falls under the Railway Labor Act, meaning “they are not able to do a work stoppage until negotiations have been exhausted.”
The engineers are still in mediation — a session was scheduled for March 25, but an end to the mediation period “is coming up soon,” Williams said. After that there is a 30-day cooling off period followed by a 240-day period, after which a work stoppage could occur, she said.
Under that timeframe, a strike could possibly be called in December.
“It is a possibility,” Williams acknowledged of having the entire SEPTA system shut down.
HB 2109 is in the House Labor and Industry Committee and though it is not scheduled for consideration yet, Harper remained positive that it would be.
“If they go on strike, I think it will move,” she said. If the bill passed and the SEPTA workers went on strike, the transit authority would be able to go to court to get an injunction, she said.
SEPTA said in a statement that it appreciated Harper’s effort to introduce the bill, adding management was “committed to good-faith bargaining and remains ready to discuss the issues presented by TWU, Local 234.”
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