A crippling transit stoppage that would have prevented thousands of essential workers in Philadelphia getting to their jobs was dramatically called off at the eleventh hour after mayor Jim Kenney intervened.
Kenney called union leader Willie Brown late on Wednesday evening personally assuring him he would see that demands for better protection from the coronavirus will be looked at urgently.
And Brown agreed that the action would be postponed for 48 hours to see if the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority comes up with the goods.
‘I don’t have much faith that it will prevent the action completely,’ John Samuelsen, the New York-based international president of the Transport Workers Union told DailyMail.com in an exclusive interview.
‘We are essential cogs in the wheels that run Philadelphia, so we are saying “Don’t expose transit workers”.
‘It is a bit like putting a higher value on the lives of nurses and doctors than on transit workers and we won’t stand for that.’
Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney called union leader Willie Brown on Wednesday evening to assure him that demands for better protection from the coronavirus will be looked at
Union leader Willie Brown agreed to postpone the action for 48 hours
Five thousand transit workers were due to walk off the job on Thursday morning claiming the SEPTA bosses were ‘trying to kill them’ by failing to provide measures to protect them from the coronavirus.
They say they had done virtually nothing to make them safe as three workers have died from COVID-19 and another 170 tested positive.
‘SEPTA is trying to kill people,’ Samuelsen said in an exclusive interview just hours before the walk-out was due to begin.
‘We recognize the vital role we play in getting people to work but SEPTA has a reciprocal obligation to its workforce that we aren’t used as human sacrifices.’
The action would have disrupted the rail and bus system in and around the nation’s sixth largest city and severely inconvenienced essential workers who rely on the system to get them to their jobs.
Transport Workers Union president John Samuelsen has urged officials: ‘Don’t expose transit workers’
A Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority bus driver wears a protective mask as he drives through in Philadelphia
Samuelsen said the 2-day pause would give time to see if SEPTA was serious in protecting its workers.
He said he was not calling the action a strike, rather a ‘refusal to work’ until the safety issues are hammered out. Strikes are banned in the TWU contract with SEPTA.
SEPTA is run by a 15-member board of directors with the mayor and the city council president each appointing one member. Those two can veto any item approved by the full board. The other members are appointed by the surrounding counties, the state governor, and by the majority and minority leaders of each house of the Pennsylvania state legislature.
Samuelsen had harsh words for SEPTA bosses.
‘There has been a reckless indifference on the part of the management who have exposed the workforce to COVID-19,’ he said.
‘We have been working diligently, giving the agency a chance to get its act together but their actions have exemplified the incompetent indifference of public sector bureaucracy.’
Samuelsen said other cities such as New York took quick action to move buses to serve middle-class areas as most office workers are no longer needing public transport.
‘While they are sitting at home watching Tiger King or making trades from their bedroom, it is the blue-collar workers who are delivering — and New York and other systems have recognized that.’
Stoppage would have prevented thousands of essential workers getting to work
SEPTA operates the fifth largest overall transit system in the country
SEPTA operates the fifth largest overall transit system in the country, serving 4 million people living in the City of Brotherly Love and five surrounding counties.
In normal times there are around 6 million rides a week on its trains, subways, buses and trolleys.
Brown, leader of Local 234 in Philly, had said riders should ‘find an alternate way to work.’
‘We will choose life over death,’ Brown said in a video posted on YouTube.
‘It’s almost as if they’re sending my members out there on a suicide mission.’
Samuelsen said it is not just drivers who are at risk of catching the virus from riders, but mechanics are ‘working on top of each other’ in close quarters.’
He said virtually the only concession SEPTA management had made to ward off the virus is to have operators working one-week on and one-week off to reduce contact with the public.
‘They haven’t even endeavored to accomplish social distancing in the workplace,’ he said. ‘There is no strategy to reduce tensions in the ridership — in fact they are asking the operators to act as policemen by limiting the ridership.
‘There has been no attempt to bring in temperature screening — which is mandatory in Pennsylvania.’
The union is asking for full temperature screening of all employers and those with a temperature of 100.4 or more to be sent home on full pay; contact tracing for anyone exposed; better social distancing among the workforce; daily air quality testing on all vehicles; a limit of 15 riders per vehicle; quarantine with pay for workers who have existing medical issues; and that any deaths should be classified as work-related so families can get compensation.
In a statement before the action was suspended, SEPTA had warned of ‘significant service disruption. ‘At minimum, it would likely force the suspension of bus service within the City of Philadelphia,’ the agency said.
‘SEPTA is looking at all possible options for maintaining some core services, such as limited operations on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines,’ the statement added.
‘We are working diligently to evaluate and implement all viable options to balance the needs of our customers and employees while under tremendous financial stress due to revenue losses,’ the statement said.
‘SEPTA urges TWU Local 234 leadership to commit to engaging in a productive dialogue aimed at making further improvements, while allowing employees to continue to provide service that is connecting residents to essential jobs, hospitals, grocery stores and other life-sustaining services.’
Officials in the city said contingency plans were in place to help health care workers get to their jobs and a plan was being worked out to help police officers and firefighters as well.