The scariest thing to come this Halloween in Philadelphia could’ve been a strike by thousands of public transit workers — but late on Friday the two sides agreed on a one-year tentative deal to avoid it.
SEPTA’s largest union had threatened that if if contract negotiations fail, members woul dstrike beginning at midnight on Wednesday, Nov. 1. Transit Workers Union Local 234, represents more than 5,000 SEPTA workers, from bus drivers to cashiers. Its last strike was in 2016.
Called the most-strike prone transit agency in the nation, SEPTA even proactively released their plan about what services would and would not be in operation if a strike did happen.
Here’s a look at how the previous work stoppages went down, and what to expect this time around.
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.
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.
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.
This story first published in October 2021 and has been updated.