A history of strikes at SEPTA, called the nation’s most strike-prone transit agency

Union leadership and transit officials have announced a settlement.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Update, Oct. 29: SEPTA and TWU Local 234 announced on Friday morning a tentative agreement on a new contract, averting a possible strike next week.

The two-year deal includes a 3% annual wage increase, paid parental leave, and a pandemic hazard bonus of $1 for each hour worked between March 15, 2020 to March 15, 2021, CBS3 reports. It also adds Juneteenth as a paid holiday. The deal is tentative until ratified (that could reportedly happen as soon as Nov. 5), but means there won’t be a service shutdown of bus, trolley and subway service next week.


For a bit it looked like your last normal SEPTA ride for a while this year could be filled with passengers dressed up as devils and witches or costumed as characters from “Wandavision.”

Midnight on Halloween was the expiration date for the current contract between the Philly region’s transit authority and Transport Workers Union Local 234. The union represents more than 5,000 SEPTA workers, from bus drivers to cashiers, and authorized a strike last weekend if an agreement wasn’t met by Oct. 31.

A strike would have shut down bus, trolley, and subway service inside the city, although Regional Rail would still run, likely with increased frequency.

SEPTA has been called the most-strike prone transit agency in the nation.

Here’s a look at how the previous TWU Local 234 work stoppages went down, and what to expect this time around.

1971: Commuters block 12th Street near Market as they jam into Reading Terminal during a strike of the SEPTA lines

1971: Commuters block 12th Street near Market as they jam into Reading Terminal during a strike of the SEPTA lines

George D. McDowell / Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Temple University Libraries

1971 strike (9 days)

When workers walked off the job in 1971, the strike lasted nine days. SEPTA got a court injunction two days in, but workers defied it. That led to fines and the brief imprisonment of union president Dom DeClerico, per TWU history. The union eventually called off the strike, deciding it served no one. The contract hammered out included a 75¢ raise and pension boost.

1975 strike (11 days)

This year saw an 11-day walkout in search of a cost-of-living clause that would automatically boost pay as inflation swept through the nation’s economy. State officials refused to kick in funding, and after nearly a week of final negotiations, then-Mayor Frank Rizzo announced $7.5 million in additional city funding.

1977 strike (44 days)

Two years after that deal, the union went on its longest strike to date. The 1977 walk-off lasted 44 days, more than six weeks. Rizzo refused to kick in any further funding, reportedly saying, “It can last 10 years, as far as I’m concerned.”

Public sentiment went against transit workers, and a report from the Chamber of Commerce concluded the strike was having “little impact” as it dragged on. The episode resulted in a contract TWU calls “worse” than the original offer, and the permanent loss of 10% of SEPTA’s riders.

1n 1977, SEPTA workers carry signs at a strike rally

1n 1977, SEPTA workers carry signs at a strike rally

George D. McDowell / Philadelphia Evening Bulletin Collection, Temple University Libraries

1981 strike (19 days)

By 1981, Local 234 represented 4,900 workers, who walked off the job in March. The strike, which lasted 19 days, halted buses, trolleys, and subways and led to a lot of customer frustration. “I hate SEPTA with every ounce of energy I have,” one rider told the Associated Press.

Worker demands included a wage hike, but also the end of SEPTA’s policy allowing it to hire part-timers, which it adopted in 1979 to avoid a repeat of the traumatic six-week strike experience. Even Gov. Dick Thornburgh got involved in the negotiations, according to the New York Times. Eventually the union won a 12.5% pay boost, better health insurance, and concessions on the part-timer policy.

1986 strike (4 days)

At the start of this relatively short strike, vandals set fire to a major electrical junction, the AP reported — causing delays on some Regional Rail trains trying to pick up the slack. The union denied involvement, and a settlement was quickly reached that included better worker harassment protections and a vested pension.

1995 strike (14 days)

A disagreement over how quickly to implement 3% wage increases led to this 14-day strike. Then-Mayor Ed Rendell took some flack for not getting involved, the Daily Pennsylvanian reported, but when the settlement finally happened, SEPTA said the mayor had helped — as had his then-chief of staff, David L. Cohen (now Comcast senior advisor and Biden’s pick for ambassador to Canada).

1998 strike (40 days)

Another major service disruption happened in 1998, when Local 234 stopped work for 40 days after 11 weeks of unfruitful negotiations, per the New York Times. SEPTA wanted to be able to hire part-time workers again, and to adopt a zero-tolerance policy for drugs and alcohol.

Mayor Rendell was reportedly involved prominently in the deal-making this time, pressing SEPTA not to raise already high fares or cut service as he worked to revitalize Center City. When the strike ended, the part-timers issue was still not resolved, but both sides agreed to send it to arbitration in order to get city transit running again.

2005 strike (7 days)

Ed Rendell, who was governor by this time, reportedly helped broker the deal that ended this seven-day Local 234 strike. It started just after midnight on Halloween of that year, with the union demanding better wages, work rules, and health care. The agreement gave workers a pay raise but had them start contributing to their own health plans, the Central Penn Biz Journal reported.

A commuter at the Frankford Transportation Center during the 2009 strike

A commuter at the Frankford Transportation Center during the 2009 strike

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

2009 strike (6 days)

Six days of no bus, trolley, and subway service hit the city when TWU went on strike — with the work stoppage starting on Election Day and during the World Series, which the Phillies went on to lose to the Yankees. At issue was a 4% wage hike, pension, and keeping health care benefits the same.

2016 strike (6 days)

The most recent strike happened five years ago and also lasted six days. Pension improvements were the largest topic of contention, and workers also demanded better job conditions, like bathroom breaks and mitigation of operator fatigue.

TWU Local 234 President Willie Brown said of 2016 negotiations that the union and SEPTA “could not come to an agreement on simple things.”

The Market-Frankford Line, Broad Street Line, buses and trackless trolleys were not running during the 2016 strike. Norristown High Speed Line, suburban buses, CCT, and LUCY continued to operate. Regional Rail continued to run, but was already overcrowded.

Worried about voter turnout for the Nov. 8 general election, Democratic campaigns including then Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton sought an emergency injunction that would have forced transit workers back to their routes and roles. The injunction did not come to fruition, as the strike ended one day before the election on Nov. 7.

Signs from the 2016 SEPTA strike

Signs from the 2016 SEPTA strike

Jacqueline Larma / AP Photo

2021 strike?

With the unique challenges of the past year and a half, SEPTA workers have been in talks with the agency since summer, according to the Inquirer. Union asks include wage increases, paid parental leave, and a “pandemic payment” — a one-time payout that would serve as hazard-pay for SEPTA workers who have continued to run the lines through the pandemic.

COVID-19 claimed the lives of 11 members of Local 234, and nearly 1,500 SEPTA employees tested positive, according to the authority’s website. Furthermore, transit workers have been the target of frequent assaults. With recent, highly publicized crime on the lines, workers are also asking for more policing in the new contract.

On the other side, the last 18 months have hit the agency in the wallet. SEPTA continues to lose an average of $1 million a day in revenue due to decreased ridership, as much employment remains virtual. Despite over a billion dollars in federal aid and relief programs, transit officials say they don’t have extra funds, considering the uncertainty of the system’s future ridership.

When it comes to costs, it’s worth noting lawyers for contract negotiations add up, too. Back in 2016, SEPTA spent a reported $423,000 on outside labor to handle the strike.

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