President Barack Obama on Saturday intervened in a commuter rail strike in the nation's sixth-largest metropolitan area, granting Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett's request to create a presidential emergency board to mediate the contract dispute between the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and its engineers and electricians unions.
Obama ordered the establishment of the three-member board effective at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. He called for "a swift and smooth resolution" of the dispute. Workers will have to return to the job when the board goes into effect after midnight, however SEPTA said it would take eight to 10 hours to restore service.
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.
More than 400 workers went on strike at midnight, and no talks were scheduled over the weekend. Obama is giving the board 30 days to deliver a report recommending how the dispute should be resolved.
"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," the Republican governor 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."
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. 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 move shut down 13 train lines that carry commuters from Philadelphia to the suburbs, Philadelphia International Airport and New Jersey.
The agency's subways, trolleys and buses continue to run.
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.