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Governor asks Obama to help end Philly rail strike

By Maryclaire Dale

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, June 14 2014 1:53 p.m. MDT

Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) union and members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) walk a picket line outside the Roberts Avenue rail yard in Philadelphia on Saturday, June 14, 2014, after the two unions went on strike at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett asked President Barack Obama on Saturday to intervene the dispute between the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and its engineers and electricians unions.

Joseph Kaczmarek, Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — Gov. Tom Corbett asked President Barack Obama on Saturday to intervene in a commuter rail strike in the nation's sixth-largest metropolitan area and force union workers to return to their jobs.

The Republican governor said he wants Obama to appoint an emergency board to mediate the contract dispute between the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and its engineers and electricians unions. More than 400 workers went on strike at midnight, and no talks were scheduled over the weekend.

"The people of Philadelphia and the surrounding region expect and deserve a safe and efficient rail system to get them to work, medical appointments, school and recreation," Corbett said in a statement. "I call on both parties to work together, find common ground and place the riders at the forefront of mind in their discussions."

If the president grants the request, workers must return to work immediately and both parties must continue negotiations, Corbett said.

The unions said they would comply with the law, but said the strike is 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.

"Yes, the strike is worth it. It's our intention to encourage SEPTA to make a reasonable settlement," Stephen Bruno, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said at an afternoon news conference.

The move shut down 13 train lines that carry commuters from Philadelphia to the suburbs, Philadelphia International Airport and New Jersey. SEPTA subways, trolleys and buses continue to run.

"My head's going to hurt by the end of this day," said volunteer Rusty Schwendeman of the Traveler's Aid Society, who had helped reroute about two dozen rail travelers Saturday morning at 30th Street Station.

They often involved several connections, longer routes or a significantly higher fare on Amtrak.

Carolyn Tola, of Hamilton Square, New Jersey, and three friends paid $40 apiece to take Amtrak from central New Jersey to Philadelphia to see the Pennsylvania Ballet instead of $9 on Septa.

"We're here," Tola said, noting that the ballet tickets were nonrefundable. "We're going to relax and enjoy it."

The strike began after negotiations between the transit agency and two unions failed to reach a new contract deal Friday. The last regional rail strike, in 1983, lasted more than three months.

The labor conflict came to a head this week after SEPTA announced it would impose a deal beginning Sunday. Terms include raising electrical workers' pay immediately by an average of about $3 per hour; the top wage rate for locomotive engineers would rise by $2.64 per hour.

The strike adds to the commuting headaches in the region, where major construction projects are making it more difficult than usual to get around.

Drexel University dance team members Beverly and Angela Tomita, 18-year-old twins, had planned to take the airport line for a 2 p.m. flight home to Laguna Beach, California, for the summer.

"That's so not convenient!" Angela Tomita said when she found the region rail entrance closed at 30th Street Station. Schwendeman soon directed them to a subway-and-bus route.

"They're not the best answers, but they're the best answers I can come up with," Schwendeman told another teenager about her three-bus route home to suburban Blue Bell. "I don't want to send anybody to the middle of nowhere, either."

Associated Press writer Peter Jackson in Harrisburg contributed to this report.

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