Could SEPTA strike in Philly drive down voter turnout?

Transport workers in Philadelphia walked off the job Tuesday after the Transport Workers Union and SEPTA failed to reach a contract agreement. If the strike continues, it could impact the election in Pennsylvania, an important swing state.

Jacqueline Larma/AP
Market-Frankford line trains remain idle at a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) station Nov. 1, 2016 in Upper Darby, Pa., just outside Philadelphia. Transit workers in Philadelphia and around hit the picket lines after the city's main transit agency and a union representing about 4,700 workers failed to reach a contract agreement.

Pennsylvania is a critical swing state in next week’s presidential election. Some worry that the public transport strike, which began Tuesday, will have a negative effect on voter turnout.

The strike by the Transport Workers Union Local 234, which represents around 5,000 employees of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), began at midnight. SEPTA drivers finished their routes and walked off the job. The move came as the contract between TWU and SEPTA expired. Several issues were being negotiated between the two, including pension reform and health care.

SEPTA’s city bus, trolley and subway services provide about 800,000 rides daily. Workers and students struggled to get to work and school on Tuesday, with many choosing to walk, bike, or share a ride. Some have expressed concern about what will happen if the chaos lasts until next week, raising the question of how Philadelphia can get voters to the polls come Election Day.

"We are, of course, concerned about how the strike will affect turnout," Sara Mullen, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "Some voters will have difficulty getting to the polls, particularly seniors and people with disabilities. Others who are struggling with complications around getting to work or getting their kids to school will have even less flexibility to get to their polling place."

This is not the first time that TWU has gone on strike around election time. In 2009, a six-day strike resulted in wage increases and larger pensions for workers. A strike was narrowly avoided before the 2014 election, with the two sides reaching the temporary deal that ended one day before Election Day. But it is the first time that a presidential election could be affected.

For union president Willie Brown, the strike is "the only tool we have available to us." Bargaining continued well into the night, TWU International said in a statement.

Numerous Pennsylvania politicians have urged SEPTA and TWU to continue their search for an agreement. Gov. Tom Wolf asked both sides to "continue talking until a compromise is reached," describing the impasse as "devastating" for those who rely on SEPTA services. Philadelphia's Mayor James Kenney said it was "vital for everyone that this situation be resolved as quickly as possible."

Agreeing to a new contract by Election Day would be one way to ensure that voters can make it to the polls come Nov. 8. If that doesn’t happen, some are concerned that voter turnout could be suppressed.

"We’ve always had difficulty, on a good day, to be able to have enough support to move people to polling places," Philadelphia city council president Darrell Clarke said to "So if there is not public transport we will clearly have a problem."

Democratic Rep. Bob Brady told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the Clinton campaign was worried about the prospect of the work stoppage lasting until Nov. 8. Pennsylvania is a key swing state in this year’s presidential election.

"It’s gonna hurt," he said. "It’ll hurt."

Unlike many other states, Pennsylvania does not have early voting, Ms. Mullen points out. As a result, "voters have no alternative but to try to squeeze voting into an already complicated situation."

One possible answer: a temporary halt to the strike for Election Day. SEPTA has announced that it would request an injunction from a US District Court to get workers back on the job by the time polls open Nov. 8. 

"If we foresee an agreement will not come to pass, SEPTA intends to enjoin the strike for November 8th to ensure that the strike does not prevent any voters from getting to the polls and exercising their right to vote," the transit authority said in a statement.

The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, which "administers and enforces Commonwealth laws dealing with labor-management relations," tells the Monitor that SEPTA would have to request an injunction for the strike in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia.

There is no real precedent for such an injunction, leaving the decision in the hands of the court, Sara Goulet, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry, explains. It's a question of balancing the rights of striking workers with Philadelphians' ability to exercise their right to vote.

Without a court injunction, the union could voluntarily agree to pause the work stoppage for Election Day. A union representative could not be reached for comment.

Editor's Note: In a previous version of this article, Rep. Bob Brady was incorrectly identified. He is a Democratic Representative and chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee.

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