SEPTA strike: Why transit cops walked off the job

Will it affect your commute? Officials say no.

Miguel Martinez / Billy Penn

Cue the flashbacks. SEPTA is on strike, again.

Don’t worry, it’s not as drastic as the strike in 2016, which saw almost 5,000 employees boycotting their transit work for more than a week. This time, the battle is between SEPTA management and the union representing its police force.

That’s not to say this isn’t a big deal — police are essential to the safe operation of Philly’s public transportation network.

As of Wednesday afternoon, nearly 200 officers had halted their work after the two sides failed to reach an agreement over a new contract, which has been in limbo since March 2018.

So how’d we get here, and what’s next?

What does the union want?

No surprise, the fight is over money — at least partly. Leaders of the Fraternal Order of Transit Police Lodge #109 — that’s the union that reps SEPTA cops — are upset about a year-long lapse in their contract.

FOTP hasn’t released exactly what kind of monetary incentives it’s looking to gain for its members. But union president Omari J. Bervine said in a statement that compared to their supervisors, the transit officers are underpaid and understaffed.

On average, SEPTA officials make $78,706 each year including overtime. That’s about $30k less than the earnings of their supervisors, per an Inquirer report.

During the most recent transit police strike in 2012, the work stoppage actually ended up costing both sides more money than they were fighting over to begin with. But neither wants to forfeit and lose the battle. This is another instance in the long-simmering saga between the FOTP and SEPTA officials.

In a way, this is the first test of union clout in Philly’s post-Johnny Doc indictment era.

What’s the body camera issue?

There’s also a disagreement between management and union members over the cameras, according to The Inquirer.

If there’s an investigation into their conduct, officers are not allowed to review footage from their own body cameras before providing statements. Union leadership feels it’s unfair to put officers in a situation where faulty memory could contradict recorded video.

How many people are on strike?

Exactly 178 transit cops have stopped working. That leaves 49 supervisors still on the job.

Will this affect service?

SEPTA officials say no — they’ve got a strike contingency plan in place to keep riders safe as long as the strike lasts.

Who’s going to fill in?

That contingency plan we mentioned? It’ll look like this: The 49 SEPTA police supervisors who are still on the job will work longer-than-usual 12-hour shifts to make up for their absent colleagues. The department will also get extra help from regular Philly police and cops from neighboring suburban jurisdictions, according to a spokesperson.

When’s the last time this happened?

Thee last time SEPTA’s police force went on strike was back in 2012. That time, FOTP officials wanted a 50-cents-an-hour pay raise, but SEPTA stuck to its guns offering 15 cents an hour instead.

Prior to this round of talks, two out of three of the most recent contract negotiations between transit cops and the authority have resulted in officer strikes, per the FOTP website.

How did the 2012 strike get resolved?

After lasting nine days, the strike ended in a settlement at 9 p.m. on a Friday evening. Transit cops got an 11.5 percent salary increase over five years and a $1,250 bonus upon ratification.

What’s next?

More negotiations for SEPTA and the FOTP. Stay tuned.

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Unions, Transit, SEPTA