The transit authority’s locomotive engineers, already the lowest paid among major commuter railroads, haven’t seen a raise since prior to the pandemic
Short-staffed and offering substandard service, SEPTA should have 230 engineers, it now employs 177
PHILADELPHIA — The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) announced today that its members who operate regional rail trains for SEPTA have voted to grant BLET National President Eddie Hall the authority to call a strike. The union reported on October 23 that voting by mail ballot to authorize a strike had been approved and ballots would need to be received at the union’s national office by noon today. Results of the vote count today show that of engineers eligible to cast ballots, all voted to strike.
Last Thursday, on November 16, in remarks to the SEPTA board at their regular board meeting, BLET Vice President James P. Louis explained the issues leading to today’s vote in favor of striking: “The engineers and trainman on SEPTA are the lowest paid in the industry, said Louis. “With the new contract on commuter lines in the Northeast, a newly promoted engineer on SEPTA is paid approximately 58 percent per hour less than his or her counterparts. It takes engineers fifteen years, three to five times longer than any other railroad in the country to achieve the full rate on SEPTA which is still approximately 20 percent lower than other carriers in the Northeast.” SEPTA’s locomotive engineers have not had a raise since 2019.
Also mentioned in his address to the SEPTA board, Louis who assists engineers at Amtrak and all commuter railroads in the region negotiate agreements said, “Items like parental leave, pension plans that other commuter agencies and your bus drivers receive is not offered to the SEPTA rail employees.”
Currently, certified locomotive engineers are in high demand at both freight and passenger railroads and can’t be easily replaced. Many of SEPTA’s engineers have recently left for better paying jobs at Amtrak or elsewhere.
According to Don Hill, who is a SEPTA locomotive engineer and serves as the General Chairman of BLET Division 71, instead of the necessary 230 locomotive engineers required to properly maintain SEPTA’s schedule of regional rail trains, the agency is now down to a roster of 177. The number of locomotive engineers available to run SEPTA’s trains has gone as low as 159 in September.
Similar to the process that nearly brought the nation’s freight railroads to a halt last year, this strike authorization vote is a step necessary under the union’s bylaws to set a strike date and withdraw the members from service. Today’s strike authorization vote does not mean a strike will immediately occur. The rules of the Railroad Labor Act, which pertains to those working in regional rail at SEPTA are a different set of rules from those who operate buses or trolleys or most other jobs at the transit agency. Earlier this year, The Philadelphia Inquirer, in a story about a potential engineers’ strike, explained the process.
“We will use every lawful tool to reach a contract settlement,” said BLET National President Eddie Hall. “I’ve said it before and I will say it again, going without a new agreement during a period of high inflation is not acceptable. The number of years required for a SEPTA engineer to reach the top of the pay scale is too steep. Meanwhile, the number of engineers employed by SEPTA is far too few to meet the needs of passengers. This is no way to run a commuter railroad.”
The union representing conductors on SEPTA’s regional rail trains, SMART-TD, also announced today that its members had voted to authorize a strike. The Fraternal Order of Transit Police Lodge 109, which represents transit police at SEPTA and whose members have already authorized a strike, may go on strike as soon as this evening.
The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, more commonly known as SEPTA, operates trains in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.