The SEPTA strike’s ‘designated bad guy’: A state-appointed mediator

In between labor and management, a “teller of inconvenient truths.”

Transit Workers Union Local 234, which operates SEPTA's Philadelphia bus, trolley and subway lines, went on strike Nov. 1, 2016.

Transit Workers Union Local 234, which operates SEPTA's Philadelphia bus, trolley and subway lines, went on strike Nov. 1, 2016.

Dan Levy / Billy Penn

What do you think when you hear the word “negotiations”? Maybe you’re picturing management on one side of a table, the union sits on the other, and argument until compromise is reached.

In most cases, that table is figurative. And most of the negotiations are going through attorneys on both sides, relaying the latest information and offers to a middleman (or woman) — a mediator. In the case of the continued bargaining between SEPTA and Transit Workers Union Local 234, it’s a state-appointed mediator who’s anonymous to the public.

TWU Local 234, a 4,700-member union, is heading into the fifth day of its strike, effectively leaving the city of Philadelphia without public transportation and snarling traffic across the region. An effort by SEPTA to convince a judge to end the work stoppage last night failed, and negotiations between the two parties are continuing over pensions, healthcare and quality-of-life issues like breaks and rest time.

But under Pennsylvania law, the parties negotiating out a contract can’t do it alone. The state requires that collective bargaining for public sector employees include a state-appointed mediator from the Department of Labor and Industry. (Private sector negotiators can also request a state mediator.) Under the law, both parties must request mediation in writing no later than 150 days before the “budget submission date.”

According to a Department of Labor and Industry spokeswoman, mediators aren’t necessarily attorneys, but instead have a background in management and labor and are hired based on their experience with collective bargaining. Their role isn’t to push either side to accept an offer.

On the contrary, the mediators are required to remain entirely neutral, instead working to foster communication between two sides that have stalled in negotiations. Usually this means running paperwork back and forth and delivering them to the parties while conferring with both sides.

The state wouldn’t provide details on who their mediators are and how they’re assigned to assist in certain negotiations. They said only that a “professional mediator” has been assigned to the SEPTA case. Should that mediator not work (like it clearly hasn’t so far), both parties can elect to go to binding arbitration overseen by the state. Apparently, SEPTA’s not interested in that.

In a presentation the Bureau of Mediation apparently delivered in 2014 to the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (view it online), the Bureau offered a more candid glimpse into how their mediators operate.

In the presentation, the Bureau wrote that mediators are “the tellers of inconvenient truths” and “we can be, and often are, the designated bad guy.” They emphasized that mediators have no power to force either side to agree to anything, and “we are not your legal advisor” or “a referee.” Mediators are also private, and anything a side tells a mediator is confidential, save for what the side authorizes the mediator to tell the other party.

The Bureau maybe described their role best as such: “Hey, somebody has to be blamed.”

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