The SEPTA strike and injunctions: How and when courts intervene

The laws about how labor disputes are regulated in the United States are strict. And for good reason. Rules were set in place to allow for fairness in collective bargaining back in the days of child labor and 20-hour work days and abysmal wages that few could live reasonably on.

That means that when a labor union goes on strike — like SEPTA’s Transit Workers Union Local 234 has this week — there’s little management can do to stop it, save for seeking an injunction from a court. And that’s exactly the tool SEPTA relied on Tuesday to keep Regional Rail running and what it could rely on next week should the strike impact Election Day.

Let’s break down how injunctions work and why they’re used in labor disputes:

What an injunction is

Philadelphia City Hall

Philadelphia City Hall

Wikimedia Commons

An injunction is a court order that requires a body do (or not do) something, and they’re reserved for extreme circumstances to preserve the status quo while other proceedings continue in a court or otherwise. Injunctions aren’t automatically granted when requested by a plaintiff, so the matter is basically up to a judge.

Preliminary and temporary injunctions are most often used to prevent further harm while two parties in a case can work to settle their circumstances. The big thing to remember with injunctions is that they don’t determine the ruling of a case. If a judge rules in favor of a plaintiff seeking an injunction to stop an action from happening, it doesn’t mean the judge agrees with the merits of the plaintiff’s case in general.

A good example of how injunctions are used happened during the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, while ballots were being counted and recounted in Florida. Temporary injunctions were put in place to keep the secretary of state from certifying the election in Florida while recounts were taking place, and one was approved to halt ballot-counting while the case was being reviewed by the United States Supreme Court.

An injunction was also used in Pennsylvania earlier this year when Verizon workers went on strike. A Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge issued an injunction requested by Verizon that ordered union members essentially tone down their picketing in front of Verizon stores after management complained of threats and intimidation.

When it comes to labor, federal courts don’t have the authority to issue injunctions because of a 1932 law called the Norris-La Guardia Act. Before the New Deal, Congress passed dozens of “anti-injunction” statutes to protect labor groups from being targeted and unable to take collective action. But the injunction — which in SEPTA’s case goes through the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas — is still one of the only ways management has to halt actions as the result of a labor dispute that’s preventing others from working.

How SEPTA used one Tuesday

SEPTA train

A SEPTA Regional Rail train.

Kurt Raschke / Flickr

The evening commute was just getting started past 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday when news started trickling out that there were major disturbances along the Regional Rail lines, one of the only forms of SEPTA still running in spite of the strike.

TWU Local 234 workers had, according to SEPTA, started picketing on the Regional Rail tracks, halting evening travel and causing further delays on what was already a highly overcrowded system. Some trains were canceled entirely, and SEPTA urged customers to simply try to find another way home other than clogging the Regional Rail system.

By 5:45 p.m., SEPTA updated the public saying it had obtained an injunction in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas that essentially prevented picketers from interfering with Regional Rail service by stipulating train crews and other employees were to report to their assigned work locations within the city. In simpler terms: Picketers can interfere with their own jobs, but not others.

SEPTA said in a statement that management “hopes this will ensure that incidents like those that disrupted service [Tuesday] will not happen again.”

Why one could be used for Election Day

vote here
Photo by Timothy Rezendes via Creative Commons

If the strike continues into next week — it’s possible, the last strike lasted about that long — it could interfere with Election Day in Philadelphia, especially as eyes are on Pennsylvania in the presidential race and a tight U.S. Senate campaign.

Most Philadelphians live within walking distance of their polling place. But public officials, nonprofit organizations and groups like the American Civil Liberties Union are concerned the strike could impact Election Day turnout, particularly for seniors and disabled voters who could struggle in getting to the polls. There’s also the possibility that voters could be more tied up than usual with transportation to and from work and will have less flexibility in getting to their polling place.

SEPTA’s said that if it looks like an agreement will not be reached before Election Day, it will look to “enjoin the strike for November 8th to ensure that the strike does not prevent any voters from getting to the polls and exercising their right to vote.”

To do that, SEPTA would have to seek (and win) an injunction from the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to order TWU workers back on the job for the day. They’d have to prove the welfare or safety of members of the public is at risk. If an injunction were to be approved, it would be enforced by the Philadelphia Sheriff’s office.

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