Philadelphia makes progress with union

PHILADELPHIA -- The Philadelphia transit system's largest union agreed Saturday not to go on strike as contract talks continued hours before the start of Game 3 of the World Series, Pennsylvania's governor and the city's mayor said.

Gov. Ed Rendell and Mayor Michael Nutter told reporters late Saturday afternoon that a 6 p.m. strike deadline would pass with no walkout by the union representing more than 5,000 bus drivers, subway and trolley operators and mechanics of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

Rendell said there had been "substantial progress" and that although no agreement had yet been reached, he hoped one could be concluded quickly. He said he had told both sides to stay at the bargaining table or risk "significant consequences" of losing state support for mass transit.

Rendell declined to discuss issues still dividing the two sides, but said such negotiations always centered on wages, pensions and health care.

"We expect to get a contract very soon," said Willie Brown, president of the Transport Workers Union Local 234, who said the union had agreed to remain in the talks as long as the governor was involved. "Of course, I have to go out and take my lumps from my members."

Nutter, who also credited the help of U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, D-Pa., said union and transit system negotiators would stay at the table until a new contract is reached, and a walkout was "off the table."

"The system is up and running," he said. "Use it, today, tomorrow, the next day and the day after that while we're in the midst of this negotiation."

After several hours of negotiations, both sides ended talks for the evening, but planned to meet again at 6 p.m. Sunday, SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams said. A union spokesman did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Saturday night.

"The governor was with us and was instrumental in moving the talks along," Williams said.

The union had threatened to strike just after midnight Friday if there was no accord, but agreed to Rendell's request to keep talking on Saturday. The last contract expired last spring and members voted Oct. 25 to authorize a strike.

The Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees are scheduled to play the third, fourth and fifth games of the Series on Saturday, Sunday and Monday in Philadelphia. Most of the system's 810,000 riders use buses, subway lines and trolleys to get to work, but SEPTA spokesman Richard Maloney said about 8,000 people typically take transit to the baseball stadium for games.

Union workers, who earn an average $52,000 a year, are seeking an annual 4 percent wage hike and want to keep the current 1 percent contribution they make toward the cost of their health care coverage. SEPTA is offering no raises in the first two years and 2 percent raises in the final two years of a four-year contract and wants to raise the health care contribution to 4 percent.

A 2005 SEPTA strike lasted seven days, while a 1998 transit strike lasted for 40 days.