OUT & ABOUT: Could Willie Brown Shut Election Down With SEPTA Strike?

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FIERY TWO chief Willie Brown is known for his willingness to strike at most-painful times possible. Could this coming Tuesday's election be one of those days?

FIERY TWO chief Willie Brown is known for his willingness to strike at most-painful times possible. Could this coming Tuesday’s election be one of those days?

For the next few days, those of us who rely on the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA as it’s commonly known, are going to be looking toward Ohio.

Not literally. Metaphorically.

That’s because the only way to keep Transport Workers Union Local 234 from actually participating in the strike that its members authorized with a vote on Sunday is if the union and SEPTA can reach the metaphoric Buckeye State, said Willie Brown, TWU Local 234 president.

“We’re as far apart as Pennsylvania and California,” Brown said. “We don’t want to strike, but we feel like we have to. If SEPTA comes to the table with a serious offer, we can make this happen.”

The main sticking point between the two sides is not salaries as much as it is pensions, Brown said. Right now, union members contribute substantially more to SEPTA’s pension plan as management does, but while management pensions rise with their salaries, the pensions of union members don’t, he said.

For example: If a MCD, a maintenance worker, with 30 years of service retires, he or she could get $2,500 a month, or $30,000 a year as a maximum benefit, despite contributing as much as $2,345 a year of his or her $42,640 annual salary as he or she moves up the ladder.

But for management, the story is different, according to the union. A Manager First Class, starting salary $61,672, makes a $555 yearly pension contribution, but would retire with a $2,775 a month, or $$33,302 yearly nest egg. As this manager gets promoted, his or her benefit contribution would go no higher than $945 yearly, but the benefit payout could go as high as $4,725 a month or $56,700 a year.

“We should get out what we put in,” Brown said. “Our pensions are capped. It’s not fair that management pays less than 1% into the pension while the workers pay 3.5%. We want pension reform.”

In a statement issued after the TWU press conference, SEPTA disputed this, saying the pension plans aren’t as far apart as the union would have you believe.

“SEPTA continues to provide reasonable wage, pension and health-care benefits for all employees,” according to the statement. “When considering Social Security and pension benefits, a typical TWU retiree has an income-replacement ratio of 78%, whereas a typical SAM retiree’s ratio is 75%. Any difference between TWU and management pension-contribution percentages are directly attributable to the pension enhancements TWU previously negotiated at the bargaining table.”

SEPTA and the union are continuing to negotiate in an undisclosed location, but there is a lot hanging on how close to “Ohio” the two sides can get.

One of those things is election day. If the union decides to go out next week, and Brown decides to go out on Monday, the day he told the Philadelphia Inquirer is his favorite day for a strike, some folks are going to have problems getting to the polls.

Not being able to get to the polls due to transportation issues will depress turnout, thus keeping the man that most of the city’s unions have endorsed, Democratic candidate Tom Wolf, from being the Commonwealth’s next Governor. I wasn’t able to find any information that lists TWU Local 234 as one of the unions endorsing Wolf, by the way.
While that may concern some, it doesn’t concern Brown. The only electorate he cares about is the one that put him in office; his members.

“I’m independent,” Brown said. “If we go out, it’ll be on SEPTA.”

Today is the earliest that Philadelphians might know where negotiations stand, but it will most likely be Friday, Brown said. In any case, SEPTA riders will get a 24-hour warning before the strike begins, he said.

That’s nice. The thought of being stranded in Germantown waiting for a 23 bus that will never come kinda keeps me up nights. I could get on the Regional Rail line because it’s not impacted by the strike, but I’d have to walk to Chestnut Hill for that, something I wouldn’t be happy about.

So Philadelphians will be waiting by their television sets this weekend to see whether or not SEPTA and TWU Local 234 have reached “Ohio” … because if they don’t reach it, the rest of us are in for a long walk.

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