The union leaders are living in lala land if they think they are going to get a wage increase AND keep their current health benefits. They should get a wage increase but they will probably end up giving all that back in increased premiums/copays on the health insurance side.

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Posted on Thu, Jan. 27, 2005



SEPTA and union begin talks
Transport Workers chief Jeff Brooks says he will seek a long-term pact and a pay raise.
By Jere Downs
Inquirer Staff Writer

A year ago, SEPTA was in crisis mode and its largest union agreed to an unusual, one-year contract with no salary increase in the hope that Harrisburg would address the agency's long-term funding problems.

SEPTA remains in financial trouble, but the head of Transport Workers Union Local 234 said yesterday that, this year, he would seek a long-term contract with pay raises.

Considering inflation, that one-year deal - which did include a $1,000 bonus - essentially amounted to a pay cut, said Jeff Brooks, the newly elected union leader. He said he was aiming for the usual three-year pact this time, even though Harrisburg has not rescued transit agencies from their fiscal problems.

Another one-year deal "right now is not an option for me," Brooks said.

Talks between SEPTA and its largest union officially kicked off yesterday. A phalanx of SEPTA managers faced 22 mostly black-jacketed Local 234 officials across a table at the Wyndham Philadelphia at Franklin Plaza. Both sides will take up residence at the city's only union hotel full time as the March 15 contract deadline approaches.

All sides agreed on one thing: This round of bargaining will be the toughest in SEPTA's 40-year history.

"We do not underestimate the magnitude of this negotiation," Brooks said. It's "unlike any other."

SEPTA's challenge is to negotiate a multi-year deal for about 5,000 employees at the same time that it seeks to remedy a $62 million deficit by raising fares and dramatically dismantling service unless the state comes up with more money by March 6.

"The last two years, there has been more discussion about SEPTA's financial crisis than at any other time. There is no settled source for a bailout even for this year," SEPTA general manager Faye Moore said. "Everybody is breathing down our backs."

In last year's negotiations, SEPTA sought a lean four-year deal. The transit agency proposed dropping retirees' lifetime prescription coverage and making employees pay between $50 and $100 a week for their health care. SEPTA had also proposed freezing wages for the first two years, with 2 percent increases in years three and four.

Asked the contents of this year's proposal in a recent interview, SEPTA lead negotiator Patrick Battel declined to elaborate. "Remember last year?" he asked. "It will be uglier than that."

One key issue that remains unclear is how much health care will cost SEPTA in the future. The transit agency's agreement with Independence Blue Cross expires in August. Bids from IBX, Aetna and US Healthcare are being ranked by a joint union/management committee, SEPTA treasurer Joseph Casey said yesterday.

SEPTA, like debt-ridden US Airways, should seek significant savings from workers to survive, one transit rider said yesterday.

"This is not the tsunami that nobody knew about. CEO after CEO [of SEPTA] has made terrible business decisions," said George Molnar, a 56-year-old Upper Uwchlan resident who rides the R5 Paoli Thorndale train. "I feel sorry for the worker bees. There have to be significant concessions."

Veteran Local 234 City Division workers, which includes city transit operators, machinists and cashiers, average $47,000 a year. Unlike most workers, they enjoy lifetime prescription benefits and virtually free health care.

SEPTA workers should not be penalized for management mistakes, another rider asserted.

"The reason SEPTA has rough talks is because people hold the union responsible," said Frances Rothwell, 57, a Mount Airy man who rides the Route 18 bus or the subway to Center City. "The public should hold SEPTA and the board responsible."


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Contact staff writer Jere Downs at 610-313-8128 or jdowns@phillynews.com.





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