STRIKE WATCH: SEPTA City and Suburban Transit

Conditions are favorable for the development of negotiation breakdown capable of producing a strike. If deadlock has either produced a strike or radar has indicated intense walkout activity, then a Strike Warning will be issued.

With City Transit Division contracts expired, and Suburban Transit Division contracts expiring Monday, this blog rates the probability of a strike against SEPTA in the next week at higher than 50, but lower than 80, percent.

TWU 234 president Willie Brown, is publicly a subscriber of the school of thought that says that if you negotiate an agreement without a strike, you left something on the table. That said, while his militancy is genuine, the aura of stupidity he tends to project is (one must assume) not. He has to know, whatever brave face he needs to present, that public opinion is strongly against him, both personally and on the merits, and prefers SEPTA management’s position. He is failing to get any traction with his calls for binding arbitration, a forum that tends to produce advantageous deals for labor. Therefore, I strongly suspect that he is going to look for force multipliers for any industrial action.

The easiest available point of leverage is to partially replicate the strike of October 2009, where the strike was put off for a few days after the expiration of contracts and the authorization vote by union members (it was called in the small hours of the morning, a few hours after the last out of the World Series at Citizen’s Bank Park). I see a strategy of deliberate ambiguity about the timing of a strike to be the most likely option, and the best tactically for the union if they are committed to a militant path, as they seem to be; they gain the ability to disrupt without actually incurring the self-inflicted harms of striking.

The most difficult is to induce the Regional Rail unions to go through all of the hoops of the Railway Labor Act and attempt a simultaneous transit/railroad strike, which has never happened at SEPTA before, and is realistically never going to happen. (Some Regional Rail workers have been without a contract for years; neither side has invoked the RLA yet.) Even if the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen waited out the injunctions and cooling off periods necessary to strike, it would push the timetable back into Winter of 2015, at the earliest. At that point, the emergence of bikeshare in Center City, among other developments, may reduce the bargaining power of the union; it’s unclear as to whether waiting that long produces a net positive for TWU 234.

Willie Brown is right that the two sides are miles apart (the publicly aired proposals are a 6% raise over five years and a 25% raise over five years). Still, there has not, to my knowledge, been a strike vote at TWU 234. I strongly anticipate having to issue a Strike Warning over the weekend, or whenever a strike vote is called. The question is when, and under what circumstances.

One piece of leverage Willie Brown has already passed up, though; it’s much nicer outside than it was three weeks ago. Those who will be turning to long-stored bicycles for transportation may want to get them tuned up now, if they haven’t already.

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    1. Like I said; Willie Brown often projects an air of stupidity, but it’s highly calculated. He doesn’t have to believe that Act 89 is available for operating funds himself, he just has to get a plurality of the readership of the Daily News to believe that.

  1. Thanks for the excellent summation. It seems like as of this morning/last night are close to a deal. Unfortunately it’s only a 2 year contract so we get to do this all over again very soon.

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