SEPTA union leader: "Members are behind me"
PHILADELPHIA - November 4, 2009 (WPVI) -- The president of SEPTA's largest union called a news conference on Wednesday, making his first public comments since the strike against the transit agency began.
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"My members stand behind me. We will stay out as long as it takes to secure our pension," Brown said. "The last thing we want to do is wake up one day, 20 years down the road, and our pension is gone."
Brown said there has been no progress toward a settlement so far. There are no new contract talks scheduled.
Governor Ed Rendell is expected to meet with SEPTA's management and then with union leaders later Wednesday or early Thursday in an effort to get both sides back to the bargaining table.
Brown refused to take questions during the Wednesday news conference, but he did blast Mayor Michael Nutter, saying Nutter mislead the public about the possibility of a strike.
"He stood up in front of everybody, and told the public that a strike was off the table. You never heard me say, or Governor Rendell say, that a strike was off the table.
In response, Mayor Nutter said: "All of this conversation, rhetoric, and the finger-pointing, which I'm not going to get into, is unnecessary and serves no purpose. Get back to the negotiating table, deal with the issues at hand, not all this other stuff."
Brown added he refuses to meet with Nutter, but welcomes a meeting with Gov. Rendell.
The sudden strike called early Tuesday by Transport Workers Union Local 234 all but crippled the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, which averages more than 928,000 trips each weekday. The transit agency's largest union walked away from negotiations on a new contract over disagreements on wage, pension and health care issues.
Union workers, who earn an average of $52,000 a year, are seeking an annual 4 percent wage hike and want to keep the current 1 percent contribution they make toward the cost of health care coverage. Their contract expired in March.
SEPTA was offering an 11.5 percent wage increase over five years, with a $1,250 signing bonus in the first year, and increases in workers' pensions, SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said.
Union leaders say SEPTA is trying to trick them in the ongoing dispute over pension fund contributions. "He agreed to the people who are crunching the numbers," said Maloney. "The governor has seen the numbers, the mayor has seen the numbers, they've seen the numbers. Everybody has seen the numbers on the table and there's never been any dispute of the validity of the numbers."
Brown's news conference came hours a Philadelphia commuter train caught fire, complicating the morning rush already hampered by the city's transit strike. Officials said no injuries were reported. Strike a "hard sell"
Labor experts agree that a walkout over wages in a down economy is a hard sell. Striking transit workers may have a tough time earning the sympathy of passengers who are losing their own jobs and taking salary cuts, said Harley Shaiken, a labor studies professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
"For public employees during a tough recession, it's more difficult, but not impossible, to gain broader support," Shaiken said. "The key is convincing people that your victory benefits them rather than comes at their expense."
"Everybody hates SEPTA, and this is why," said Ranisha Allen, who said she had no option but to count on the kindness of car-owning neighbors to get her to work from her north Philadelphia home. "These people go on strike and they don't think about people they hurt, people who can't get to work, kids who can't get to school."
Robert Washington, who rode his bicycle from West Philadelphia to get to his office job downtown Tuesday, called the walkout "arrogant" on the transit workers' part.
"They have a lot of nerve to ask for more money in this economy," Washington said. "There are people who don't have jobs who would love to have one of their jobs."
The strike also affects buses that serve the suburbs in Bucks, Montgomery and Chester counties. Regional rail service is still operating, but trains were delayed as they experienced larger-than-normal crowds.
A 2005 SEPTA strike lasted seven days, while a 1998 transit strike lasted for 40 days.
Associated Press writers Sam Hananel in Washington and JoAnn Loviglio and Patrick Walters in Philadelphia contributed to this report.
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