President Barack Obama stepped in with an executive order to end the first strike halting commuter-train service in the Philadelphia region in 31 years.
Obama’s order last evening creates a Presidential Emergency Board, a directive similar to one he signed in March involving the Long Island Rail Road in New York.
The action restarts labor talks and train service that came to a halt at 12:01 a.m. yesterday, after union workers and transit officials with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority failed to reach a contract agreement.
Obama, intervening upon a request from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett, appointed the three-member board and gave it 30 days to issue recommendations to resolve the dispute.
The panel of arbitrators will be led by Richard Kasher, who has served on 10 such emergency boards. He is a former general counsel of the U.S. National Mediation Board, which oversees labor issues in transportation industries.
The two other board members are Ann Kenis, an Illinois lawyer who serves on a permanent panel for the Chicago Transit Authority and its unions, and Bonnie Weinstock, a labor arbitrator and mediator since 1981.
The unions, which represent about 450 workers, have been working without a contract for more than three years. SEPTA had offered $3-an-hour pay increases, which aren’t retroactive to the end of the last contract.
The commuter-rail line, serving five counties, has about 126,000 riders during peak travel times. The strike didn’t affect subway or bus service. SEPTA’s last labor action involving its commuter-train unit was in 1983 and lasted 108 days, spokesman Manny Smith said by phone.
“I have requested federal intervention from the President to immediately mediate the ongoing dispute between SEPTA and the engineers and electricians unions,” Corbett said in a statement yesterday. “It is imperative that parties continue to work toward an agreement.”
Stephen Bruno, a national vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents 59,000 members, said it was unfortunate that the governor waited so long to use this option.
Bruno said the unions would prefer to use binding arbitration to reach an accord. He said the union wanted the same pension terms as in other SEPTA contracts, and that pay raises should be retroactive.
“We have been working without a contract for about four years and there’s a significant amount of money we feel is owed to us,” Bruno said.
Jerri Williams, a spokeswoman for SEPTA, said she was pleased there would be intervention from the emergency board. “We welcome the governor’s move,” she said.
Normal rail operations will be restored today should employees return to work as required by the board, Williams said in an e-mailed statement.
In March, an emergency board formed a team to help solve a contract dispute between the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority and unions representing workers with the LIRR, the largest U.S. commuter rail system.
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