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Negotiations break off in Philly transit strike

Gene Hetrick shouts slogans Tuesday as he pickets in front of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s Frankford depot in Philadelphia.Jacqueline Larma / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

With a strike halting most of the city’s public transportation for a third day, negotiations between the region’s largest transit agency and its workers’ union broke off early Wednesday with no sign of progress.

Management and the union remain divided over health care co-pays and prescription drug coverage for future retirees, officials said.

“There was no progress on any of them,” said Richard Maloney, spokesman for the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority.

Resolute, angry transit workers vowed Tuesday to remain on strike for months if necessary, a grim prospect for hundreds of thousands of riders forced to find other ways to get around.

Buses, subways and trolleys were idle as transit employees walked picket lines and settled in for what some predicted would be an extended work stoppage.

Contract talks between the transportation authority and the Transport Workers Union broke off Sunday night, and about 5,300 union members walked off the job for the first time since 1998.

The transportation authority said union leaders rejected a contract offer that would have required employees to pay 5 percent of their health insurance premiums. Veteran workers currently pay nothing. The offer also included a 9 percent pay increase over three years.

The union contended the management was trying to renege on a deal made years ago in which workers would get modest pay raises in exchange for free health care.

'I gotta do what I gotta do'
At the Frankford bus terminal in northeast Philadelphia, dozens of workers carried signs, grilled hot dogs and hamburgers and vented about the agency’s contract proposals.

“I gotta do what I gotta do to keep my benefits. You can’t give back one cent,” said Gene Hetrick, a 32-year-old bus mechanic and father of four. “It’s a covenant we made and now they want us to pay. I know how the public might perceive it, but it’s unfair.”

Bus driver Bob Horn said he and other longtime employees began saving money months ago in anticipation of a strike. He said he has enough cash to get through Christmas.

“After 31 years of service, they’re going to pull the rug out? That’s not going to happen,” said Horn, 53.

The walkout inconveniences about 400,000 daily riders, including 27,000 public school students who receive free or subsidized transit tokens.