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SEPTA Union Unanimously Approves Strike If Deal Isn't Reached

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- The clock is counting down to a potential crisis for SEPTA riders. There are six days left for SEPTA and its largest union to reach a deal on a new contract.

Otherwise, the union is ready to walk off the job one minute after midnight on Monday, Nov. 1.

A spokesperson for TWU Local 234 says representatives from both sides are locked up in a hotel Monday as negotiations reach their final stretch.

It's a move they've made in years past.

"This is like, what, every four or five years?" one woman said.

SEPTA Releases Guide For Riders In Event Of Strike: Here's What You Need To Know

City transit workers have walked off the job at the end of a contract nine times since 1975, and history could repeat itself as early as Nov. 1.

"I think that what you can expect here is that if there is a strike the continuing negative impacts of the lack of SEPTA use and congestion will continue longer than it should," said Dr. Richard Voith, an economist with Econsult Solutions.

Voith says a strike could cause people to lose faith in the transit system altogether, as well as negatively impact wages of Philadelphians who rely on it.

"Now it's not functioning particularly well, but it could be a lot worse," he said.

Workers are asking for raises, compensation for the families of employees who died from COVID-19, maternity leave and safety for workers.

A spokesperson compared it to New York City, where the MTA gave each worker's family a $500,000 death benefit and kept their relatives on insurance for three years.

"Take care of us. We're out here putting ourselves at risk at all times," a bus operator said.

"I need SEPTA, so my reaction is 'What? Don't do that, please don't.' Come on y'all, we need y'all," one rider told CBS3.

SEPTA employees authorized a strike if negotiations with the transit system don't take a turn toward compromise. Bus operator Carl Scott said workers don't want to strike but have to take a stand.

"I think I screamed the longest saying yes," Scott said, adding, "You have to stand for something, or people would just take it away from you."

Scott is one of 1,100 transport workers union members who showed up at the sheet metal workers union hall in South Philadelphia. Their vote shows SEPTA how serious they are about walking off the job when their contract ends at midnight on Oct. 31st.

"It is happening often," union president Willie Brown said. "In 2016, I think we had one in 2014, maybe 2009. I mean it happens, but the question should be 'why do we have to strike?'"

Some riders are understanding of the workers' concerns.

"I think it's a good thing. I don't think the workers are as appreciated as they should be," rider James Morrison said.

The union, TWU Local 234, is SEPTA's largest labor union with about 5,000 members. The union and SEPTA have been in negotiations since July.

The last time a strike happened was in 2016. Some commuters are fearful raises for them will roll over to riders.

"We're the ones that are getting the shaft because we're the ones that got to put out more money for the trans passes, for the key cards, you know," one rider said.

If a strike does happen, SEPTA says riders can rely on increased service on regional rails, as well as suburban bus services. But SEPTA says it doesn't have the staff to replace busses, trolleys, and subways.

It's a concern as thousands are expected to hit the polls on Nov. 2.

"With Election Day, you don't want to see anything being different. Let's not allow a strike or anything to stop us from getting to the polls," Philadelphia City Commissioner Omar Sabir said.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney released a statement, saying, in part, "the city is assessing what the impact of a SEPTA strike would have on city departmental operations and services, and municipal elections, and will release updates and preparations as appropriate."

He also says those workers deserve to be fairly compensated.

The School District of Philadelphia said they plan to release a detailed strike contingency plan for families by Thursday.

A SEPTA spokesperson said in a statement "discussions will continue this week, and we are hopeful that an agreement can be reached without any service disruptions for riders."

Eyewitness News reporters Wakisha Bailey and Jasmine Payoute contributed to this story.

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