Could Philadelphia Transit Strike Affect Election?

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By Leslie A. Pappas

Nov. 1 — A strike by the Transport Workers Union in Philadelphia brought mass transit to a standstill, and concerns are growing that voting could be affected if the work stoppage continues through Election Day.

Pennsylvania is considered a battleground state in the presidential election, and Philadelphia is at the heart of that fight. Unlike some other states, Pennsylvania does not allow early voting.

Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority says it is “hopeful” the two sides can reach a tentative agreement before the Nov. 8 election, but if not, it will move to halt the strike for a day.

SEPTA would need to file a complaint and motion for extraordinary relief seeking a one-day injunction of the strike, agency spokeswoman Carla Showell-Lee told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 1. “The motion would seek an emergency order from the Court to enjoin the strike,” she said.

The potential venues to request such relief are the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas or the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Showell-Lee said.

Union Says Precedent on Its Side

SEPTA would have “a very weak legal position” if they tried to force workers to return to work on Election Day, Bruce Bodner, the union’s general counsel said. Under Pennsylvania law, SEPTA would have to demonstrate “a clear and present danger to the health, welfare and safety of the public,” he told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 1.

The TWU went on strike on Election Day in 2009, and the city’s Election Commission said it had no impact on voting, Bodner said. Voting in Philadelphia is local and people can walk to polling place, he added.

“We’re focusing on resolving the contract and ending the strike before election day, so that’s not even on our minds,” he said. “If this thing goes past election day, then shame on SEPTA.”

City Seen as Pivotal

“Philly is incredibly important in the election,” pollster G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., told Bloomberg BNA Nov. 1. “Obama came out of the city with a 590,000 vote edge over Romney in 2012.”

Also, one out of every five voters in Pennsylvania comes out of the four suburban counties surrounding Philadelphia, Madonna said.

Democrats have spent a lot of time and energy in Philadelphia to raise support for Hillary Clinton among members of the black community, who make up about half of Philadelphia’s population, Madonna told Bloomberg BNA. It is critical for Democrats that the strike doesn’t prevent people in Philadelphia from voting, Madonna said.

“Anything that interferes with the most solid core of Democratic voters is not good” for the Democrats, he said. “They need a big turnout.”

About 5,000 members of TWU Local 234 in Philadelphia went on strike just after midnight Nov. 1 after contract talks failed. (See related story.)

The strike halted all buses, trolleys and subways in the city, forcing thousands to find alternative ways to get to work or school. The regional rail system was expected to be operating, but picketing at a number of those facilities forced the agency to cancel a “significant number of trains” during the evening rush hour on the first day of the strike, SEPTA said.

SEPTA is seeking a court injunction to stop picketers from blocking access to the regional rail, it said.

The strike could affect voting in the suburbs for commuters who work in the city, Jim Saring, the political director for the Montgomery County Republican Committee, told Bloomberg BNA.

“My concern is just that most people in Montgomery County that work in Philadelphia either drive in or take regional rail,” he said. “If somebody faces significant delays getting back up here, that could be a problem.”

City Council Raises Concerns

Philadelphia City Councilman Darrell Clarke expressed concerns before the strike about the effect it would have on voting because people in Philadelphia vote heavily during rush hours in the morning and after 5 p.m.

“We’ve always had difficulty, on a good day, to be able to have enough support to move people to polling places,” Clarke said Oct. 27 after the council passed a resolution urging the two sides to avoid a strike. “So if there is not public transportation we will clearly have a problem.”

SEPTA covers all buses, subways, trolleys and regional trains in Philadelphia and four surrounding counties. Daily riders number about 570,000 on city transit, 56,000 on suburban transit and 112,000 on SEPTA’s regional rail.

The 2009 strike lasted six days. The longest strike in the union’s history was a 44-day strike in 1977.

To contact the reporter on this story: Leslie A. Pappas in Philadelphia at LPappas@bna.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Peggy Aulino at maulino@bna.com; Terence Hyland at thyland@bna.com

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