Philly rail strike over: Obama intervenes

A strike by about 400 workers of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) ended early Sunday morning when President Obama intervened by granting a request from Pennsyylvania Governor Tom Corbett to create a presidential emergency board to mediate the dispute.

Associated Press:

Obama on Saturday granted Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's request to create a presidential emergency board to mediate the contract dispute, forcing the 400 union workers to go back. Obama ordered the establishment of the three-member board effective at 12:01 a.m. Sunday and called for "a swift and smooth resolution."

The last regional rail strike, in 1983, lasted more than three months.

Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen vice president Stephen Bruno said his union's members were complying with the order to be back on duty at 12:01 a.m.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers president Terry Gallagher said Obama's intervention was "what we were waiting for."

"We have been five years without an agreement, trying to get to this point, and we're happy we're here now," Gallagher said.

The unions and SEPTA don't have to resume talks with each other, but they do have to participate with the board's process, which typically involves written submissions and hearings. Obama is giving the board 30 days to deliver a report recommending how the dispute should be resolved.

The strike added to the commuting headaches in the region, where major construction projects are making it more difficult than usual to get around. Commuter Carolyn Tola and three friends paid $40 apiece to take Amtrak from central New Jersey to Philadelphia instead of $9 on SEPTA because they had nonrefundable Pennsylvania Ballet tickets.

Corbett called on SEPTA and the unions to work together and keep commuters in mind.

"The people of Philadelphia and the surrounding region expect and deserve a safe and efficient rail system to get them to work, medical appointments, school and recreation," Corbett said.

The unions said the strike, which began early Saturday, was designed to force SEPTA to agree to their demands or accept binding arbitration. Workers are seeking raises of at least 14.5 percent over five years, about 3 percentage points more than SEPTA has offered.

This is not binding arbitration, so Philadelphia may find itself in the same situation 30 days or so from now. As for a 14.5% pay increase, it may sound like a lot but the union hasn't had a contract for 5 years which makes SEPTA's offer barely beating inflation over that time. And that's the "official" rate of inflation, not the real rate which is more than what the union is seeking.

It's hard to root for either side in this dispute, but if big cities are going to maintain expensive public transportation systems, they're going to need transit workers. In good times, the workers got generous raises and benefits. Now that city finances are at issue, you would think the union would recognize the problem and scale back their offer a bit. You can't get blood out of a turnip or force a city to spend money they don't have just to get a raise.

The attitude that "I get mine first" will eventually bankrupt our cities.

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