PHILADELPHIA – Resolute, angry transit workers vowed Tuesday to remain on strike for weeks or even months if they don't get an acceptable contract, a grim prospect for hundreds of thousands of riders forced to find other ways to get around.
City buses, subways and trolleys were idle for a second day as employees of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority walked picket lines and settled in for what some predicted would be an extended work stoppage.
Contract talks between SEPTA and the Transport Workers Union (search) broke off Sunday night, and about 5,300 union members walked off the job for the first time since 1998. No new face-to-face talks were scheduled as of Tuesday afternoon, although union and SEPTA representatives huddled separately with a mediator.
"I'm lonelier than the Maytag repairman. We're sitting at the hotel, waiting for the union negotiators," said SEPTA (search) spokesman Richard Maloney.
SEPTA 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. SEPTA's offer also included a 9 percent pay increase over three years.
The union contends that SEPTA is trying to renege on a deal made years ago in which workers would get modest pay raises in exchange for free health care.
At the Frankford bus terminal in northeast Philadelphia (search), dozens of SEPTA 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."
The walkout inconveniences about 400,000 daily riders, including 27,000 public school students who receive free or subsidized transit tokens.
A subway rider, Toks Adibuah, 24, said she was using cabs, hitching rides from co-workers and hopping on unfamiliar trains to get to work, adding at least an hour a day to her commute and $40 a week to her transportation costs.
"It's really stressful. I just don't even want to talk about it," she said.