PHILADELPHIA – President Barack Obama on Saturday forced union workers in Philadelphia’s commuter rail strike to return to the job, granting a request of Tom Corbett, Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, to create a presidential emergency board to mediate the contract dispute.
Obama ordered the establishment of the three-member board effective at 12:01 a.m. today.
He called for a swift and smooth resolution of the dispute between the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and its engineers and electricians unions.
Workers were to return to the job when the board went into effect after midnight, but SEPTA said rail service wouldn’t be up and running until around 6 a.m. today. They don’t have to resume direct talks with each other, but they do have to participate with the board’s process, which typically involves written submissions and hearings.
Obama is giving the board 30 days to deliver a report recommending how the dispute should be resolved.
More than 400 workers went on strike at midnight Friday. The move shut down train lines that carry commuters from Philadelphia to the suburbs, Philadelphia International Airport and New Jersey. The agency’s subways, trolleys and buses continued to run.
Terry Gallagher, president and local chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said the presidential intervention was what we were waiting for.
We have been five years without an agreement trying to get to this point, and we’re happy we’re here now, he said.
Gallagher said employees will be notified to report to their next scheduled shifts.
The unions said the strike was designed to force SEPTA to agree to their demands or accept binding arbitration. Workers are seeking raises of at least 14.5 percent over five years – or about 3 percentage points more than SEPTA has offered.