Workers for the Philadelphia-area transit system have voted to authorize a strike next month if an agreement isn’t reached on a new contract.
The Transport Workers Union Local 234 said that a vote at a Sunday morning meeting in south Philadelphia approved a motion to allow union leaders to call a strike if an agreement with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority is not reached in a week.
“Our members are essential workers who have risked their lives and put their own families at risk during this pandemic,” union president Willie Brown told The Philadelphia Inquirer. He said the union was asking SEPTA to address “issues related to health and safety and modest economic improvements.”
The union is demanding more pandemic-related assistance as transit workers have had to deal with increased COVID-19 risks and belligerent passengers refusing mask mandates.
Just last week, a SEPTA employee stopped a man who was raping a woman on the train as other passengers watched and recorded the interaction.
The suspect, Fiston Ngoy, 35, allegedly harassed the woman, groped her and eventually raped her through more than two dozen train stops last week, authorities said. SEPTA authorities also said that officers responded within three minutes of the lone 911 call they received – from an off-duty transportation employee.
The transport worker union is demanding support in the form of police patrols and paid family leave.
SEPTA said talks have been productive and it hopes to avoid disruptions with agreement on a “fair and financially responsible” pact. The agency said it is still losing about $1 million a day in revenues due to ridership declines with more people working at home during the pandemic, and ridership not expected to return to February 2020 levels.
“We have to find a way to provide fair wages and benefits to employees, while also facing the challenges ahead,” SEPTA said. “That’s why SEPTA has presented two paths to TWU leadership: a shorter-term deal that provides wage increases, a pandemic payment and other benefits, and a longer-term proposal that reflects future uncertainties.”
SEPTA strike in 2016: Philadelphia transit strike sends hundreds of thousands scrambling for rides to work
If a strike occurs next week, hundreds of thousands of people will be impacted. A vast majority of public transportation trips involve a direct economic impact on the local economy, including getting to or from work, according to a 2017 survey of 695,748 riders by the American Public Transportation Association.
Communities of color make up 60% of the transit system’s ridership, with African-Americans making up about a quarter of that population, says the survey.
Back in 2016, approximately 4,700 city transit workers went on strike, leaving idling subways, buses and trolleys that provided almost 1 million rides each weekday. Commuter rail lines stretching deep into the city’s suburbs were not directly affected by the strike, but jammed trains and lengthy delays were reported as commuters locked out of their normal routes packed anything that moved.
The weeklong strike was resolved the day before the general election in that year with Democratic city leaders expressing fears that the walkout could weaken turnout and hurt Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
Contributing: Jeanine Santucci, USA TODAY; The Associated Press
Michelle Shen is a Money & Tech Digital Reporter for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @michelle_shen10