Suburban Philadelphia, PA, commuter rail line workers strike for contracts, 1983

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionPDF versionPDF version
Time Period:  
15 March
3 July
Location and Goals
United States
Location City/State/Province: 
Philadelphia, PA, and surrounding counties
The strikers, who had been working without contracts ever since the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) assumed ownership of 12 suburban rail lines from Conrail on January 1, 1983, were receiving significantly lower wages than before the change in ownership. The strikers demanded that SEPTA sign contracts with all 15 unions representing workers on these 12 rail lines before any worker would return to work. The unions demanded an increase in pay and an end to SEPTA's hiring of part-time workers.

The strike against the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) by approximately 1,500 train conductors, attendants, engineers, and signalmen, which lasted from March 15 to July 3, 1983, had been in the works for some months. On January 1, 1983, SEPTA, the region's largest public transit provider, assumed ownership of twelve suburban commuter rail lines from Conrail, a federal entity. These twelve lines served four counties surrounding Philadelphia and carried between 40,000 and 50,000 commuters to and from the city each weekday.

The transition was rather confusing for the rail line workers who started working for SEPTA on January 1, 1983, without contracts. The approximately 1,500 workers were represented by fifteen different unions, including local chapters of the United Transportation Union (UTU), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Brotherhood of Railway and Airline Clerks, the International Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen, the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, the Railroad Yardmasters of America, the Transport Workers Union and the American Train Dispatchers Association.

In preparation for the change in ownership, each of the fifteen unions entered into separate contract negotiations with SEPTA starting in August 1982. The UTU represented 345 conductors and forty-five attendants and was the largest of the fifteen unions negotiating. The rail line workers had experienced a substantial pay reduction following the transition to SEPTA. The average wage of the approximately 1,500 workers was $9.25 per hour, which placed them 19th among similar workers in U.S. cities. SEPTA also wanted to eliminate 600 existing union jobs along the twelve rail lines and employ outside contractors.

On February 14, 1983, the UTU threatened to strike but backed down after pressure from the Philadelphia City Council. On Friday, March 11, the UTU voted to strike if an agreement was not reached by 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, March 15. On Sunday, March 13, 1983, SEPTA presented a proposed contract to the UTU, which provided for a 2% annual raise over a three-year contract.

In its counter proposal, the UTU proposed a 10% annual raise over a two-year contract, reducing its original demand of a 20% annual raise. Another central issue in the negotiations was the extent to which SEPTA would employ part time workers on the twelve rail lines. This issue dated back to 1981, when workers staged a nineteen-day strike, forcing the issue off the table. SEPTA hoped to slowly reduce wages on the twelve suburban lines and change work rules and conditions to become on par with its city transit employees.

On Monday evening, March 14, after a four-hour negotiation session, UTU local general chairman Charles P. Jones announced that his union had not reached an agreement with SEPTA and would go on strike at midnight. SEPTA's chief negotiator was Alan J. Davis, and Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Bernard J. Goodheart mediated the talks. The other fourteen unions representing suburban rail line workers announced that they would go on strike at midnight as well in support of the UTU. Only three of these fourteen unions had reached their own contract agreements with SEPTA. Leaders of these fifteen unions agreed to work together to support the strike and to not return to work until every union had settled.

During the same time period, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 234, which represented the majority of SEPTA's city bus, trolley and subway workers, was in intense contract negotiations with SEPTA. A strike loomed but was avoided early on the morning of Tuesday, March 15, 1983, following a temporary settlement. SEPTA was cognizant of the fact that the UTU was planning to go on strike Tuesday morning and that the other fourteen suburban rail unions might join. This may have influenced the settlement with the TWU in order not to have a strike in the city as well as the surrounding counties. In addition, SEPTA knew that it could use TWU bus drivers to operate buses along suburban rail lines.

At 12:01 on the morning of Tuesday, March 15, 1983, the fifteen rail unions set up picket lines and went on strike. Over the course of the strike, workers picketed outside SEPTA headquarters, Reading Terminal, and Suburban Station in Center City Philadelphia as well as at Wayne Junction, a central signal station in the southwest Germantown section of Philadelphia. It is unclear how constant these picket lines were maintained over the course of the strike, but there are media reports of picketers at these locations on various dates.

The Philadelphia rail strike was influenced by two other strikes that occurred in the general region at the same time. Two weeks prior to the Philadelphia strike, New Jersey Transit workers walked off their jobs, and a week before, workers for the Metro-North Commuter Railroad in New York did the same.

In the second week of the Philadelphia strike, Judge Goodheart asked the twelve unions that still did not have contracts to agree to a thirty-day cooling-off period and for the workers represented by all fifteen unions to return to work. Leaders of the twelve unions met on Wednesday, March 23, and unanimously voted to reject Judge Goodheart's proposal.

Nelson Evans, Chairman of the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen local, announced on Friday, April 22 that his union had voted 19 to 15 with 3 abstentions to cross the picket lines and return to work. This union was one of the three unions that had signed contracts with SEPTA before March 15 but had gone on strike in solidarity with the UTU and the other eleven unions working without contracts. The Brotherhood of Railway Carmen was the first union to cross the line.

On Monday, May 9, 1983, after a long weekend of negotiations, UTU local general chairman Jones announced that he had reached an agreement with SEPTA. This was the fifth agreement to have been reached with the fifteen unions since January. Jones announced that he would call a membership meeting of his union on Thursday, May 12 to ratify the contract. He expected full support.

On May 31, 1983, the American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA), which represented 10 striking workers, reached a contract agreement with SEPTA. That agreement provided for the same hourly wage as the workers received when they worked for Conrail, but it only provided for a 2 percent annual raise over 42 months. ATDA International Vice-President Bob Johnson said that the agreement was "garbage" because he foresaw many loopholes leading to numerous worker grievances when the strikers returned to their jobs. At this point, SEPTA had signed contracts with nine of the unions representing workers on the Suburban rail lines.

By June 14, one other union besides the Brotherhood of Railway Carmen had crossed the picket lines. Twelve of the remaining thirteen striking unions had reached agreements with SEPTA; the last two of the twelve had signed contracts on June 7, 1983. The one union remaining without a contract was the International Brotherhood of Railway Signalmen, which represented forty-four workers.

On Saturday, June 15, 1983, leaders of the other striking unions gathered to pressure the forty-four Signalmen to return to work even though they had not settled with SEPTA. The negotiations with the Signalmen had been sporadic, with both sides walking away from the table on multiple occasions. On June 21, Philadelphia Mayor William J. Green, III joined in the negotiations sessions between SEPTA and the Signalmen's union for the first time in an effort to mediate a settlement. After the meeting, both sides announced that they had reached an agreement on one of the union's key issues: the extent to which SEPTA would employ non-union workers to do the work of the signalmen. The union announced that they had agreed that some of their work could be done by non-union labor, but that their members had to be present to make the final connection of power lines. The agreement also stipulated that SEPTA would not hold the Signalmen's union members liable if electrical wires were disrupted by outside contractors.

As of June 25, approximately 10 of the roughly seventy members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees crossed the picket line to return to their post at a SEPTA facility at Broad Street and Lehigh Avenue, and on Wednesday, June 29, 1983, 200 workers with union contracts crossed the picket line and returned to work. The Signalmen remained on strike until they reached a contract agreement with SEPTA on Thursday, June 30, 1983. Their contract provided for the same basic pay increase as the other rail unions had obtained - a total of 6% over forty-two months and a provision that SEPTA employ all members of the union before hiring part-time workers. Full service on the twelve commuter rail lines resumed on Sunday, July 3, 1983.

As a whole, the 13 contracts settled during the strike provided for the elimination of 600 union jobs and for the reduction of pay of some of the highest paid union members. The contracts also stated that newly hired union members would be employed at much lower wages than existing workers. In general, however, SEPTA continued to honor the unions' seniority provisions and agreed to better fringe benefit packages than some unions had under Conrail.

Research Notes

The strikers were influenced by previous transit strikes that had occurred in the Philadelphia area as well as strikes against the METRO-North Commuter Railroad in New York and against New Jersey Transit that started within two weeks prior to March 15, 1983. (1)

OSCAR BERRYMAN. 1983. City riders are bracing for strike. Philadelphia Tribune (1912-2001), March 1, (accessed August 31, 2011).

OSCAR BERRYMAN. 1983. City riders are bracing for strike. Philadelphia Tribune (1912-2001), March 1, (accessed August 31, 2011).

By WILLIAM ROBBINS Special to The New York Times. 1983. Talks Held to Avert Transit Strikes in Philadelphia. New York Times (1923-Current file), March 14, (accessed August 31, 2011).

By WILLIAM ROBBINS Special to The New York Times. 1983. Strike Disrupts 50,000 Commuters in Philadelphia. New York Times (1923-Current file), March 16, (accessed August 31, 2011).

Philadelphia Rail Lines Return With Free Rides. 1983. New York Times (1923-Current file), July 4, (accessed August 31, 2011).

New Effort Fails to End Philadelphia Rail Strike. 1983. New York Times (1923-Current file), June 15, (accessed August 31, 2011).

Rail Unions Reject Request. 1983. New York Times (1923-Current file), March 24, (accessed August 31, 2011).

By ARI L. GOLDMAN. 1983. New Talks Seek An End to Strike Of Metro-North :Key Issue in Bargaining Remains Size of Crews. New York Times (1923-Current file), March 21, (accessed August 31, 2011).

Philadelphia Commuters Are Spared a Rail Strike. 1983. New York Times (1923-Current file), February 14, (accessed August 31, 2011).

Rail Unions Reject Request. 1983. New York Times (1923-Current file), March 24, (accessed August 31, 2011).

Philadelphia Rail Union To Cross Picket Line. 1983. New York Times (1923-Current file), April 24, (accessed August 31, 2011).

Philadelphia Nears Accord in Transit Dispute. 1983. New York Times (1923-Current file), May 10, (accessed August 31, 2011).

"SEPTA Newtown Commuter Rail Line - Project Background":

"Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) - TRAINS Magazine":

Other sources from the Philadelphia Inquirer, published during the strike.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Carl E. Sigmond, 29/08/2011