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Strike averted as SEPTA, unions keep negotiating.


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By Paul Nussbaum



Gov. Rendell Saturday ordered negotiators for SEPTA and its largest union to remain at the bargaining table and keep the city's buses, subways and trolleys running, averting the threat of a strike during the World Series.


The prospect of a transit strike in the midst of the baseball championships had threatened to create chaos for residents and visitors and tarnish Philadelphia's reputation during its moment in the national spotlight.


About four hours before the first pitch of last night's game, Rendell, along with Mayor Nutter and U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.), announced that SEPTA and the Transport Workers Union were close to agreement on a new contract. They said the two sides had agreed to continue talks until an agreement was reached.


"I have told both sides they're going to stay at the bargaining table," Rendell said. He said if either side walked out of talks at the governor's Center City office, he would punish it by withholding state support in the future.


The breakthrough came after Rendell, Nutter and Brady joined negotiators early yesterday morning and kept talks going after a midnight strike deadline had expired. Unable to reach a consensus before dawn, union leaders gathered with the politicians at Rendell's office yesterday afternoon and soon agreed to end the strike threat.


Willie Brown, the new president of TWU Local 234, had been reluctant to give up the leverage of a strike during the World Series, after seven months without a contract. He acknowledged yesterday, "I will have to take my lumps from my members."


But he said, "We expect a contract very soon."


The dramatic end to the threat of a strike came in an afternoon press conference in the grand lobby of the Bellevue, at Broad and Walnut streets, where Rendell has his Philadelphia office.


The hastily convened session, amidst the Bellevue's marble columns, lofty ceilings and massive chandeliers, was sharp departure from the negotating sessions, which had been held for the past week at the more utilitarian spaces of the Holiday Inn in Old City.


Rendell said the labor dispute "has got to be brought to a head," and he said recent "substantial progress" made him confident that "we can settle this contract in the very near future."


Nutter praised the no-strike pact, saying the city and its commuters and visitors "cannot continue to operate under hourly or daily deadlines...we should all breathe a big sigh of relief."


With the threat of a strike removed, city and state officials urged baseball fans, football fans and concert goers to take SEPTA to the crowded South Philadelphia complex.


"For people making a decision about what to do, mass transit is your first, best option," Nutter said.


SEPTA put additional express trains on the Broad Street Subway to handle the extra crush of passengers, and PATCO added cars to its trains running between Center City and South Jersey.


SEPTA's city transit division, which operates the buses, subways and trolleys within Philadelphia, carries an average of more than 928,000 trips every weekday. The added sports and entertainment attractions this weekend were expected to add tens of thousands of additional riders.


In the contract talks, TWU Local 234, which represents about 5,100 bus, subway and trolley operators and mechanics, is seeking an 18 percent pay raise over five years, and it said SEPTA was offering 9 percent over five years with no increase in the first year of the new contract.


The TWU has been working without a contract since early spring. It's last strike was in 2005 and lasted seven days.


SEPTA bus, subway, and trolley operators earn from $14.54 to $24.24 an hour, reaching the top rate after four years. Mechanics earn $14.40 to $27.59 an hour.


Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-4587 or pnussbaum@phillynews.com




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