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Creating a mediation board, Obama forces Philadelphia's commuter rail workers back on job

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PHILADELPHIA - President Barack Obama on Saturday forced union workers in Philadelphia's commuter rail strike to return to the job, granting Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett's request to create a presidential emergency board to mediate the contract dispute.

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 between the Southeast Pennsylvania Transportation Authority and its engineers and electricians unions.

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.

Obama is giving the board 30 days to deliver a report recommending how the dispute should be resolved.

More than 400 workers went on strike at midnight.

"As long as these workers show up for their regularly scheduled Sunday shifts, Regional Rail service will restored to full Sunday operations in the morning, starting with the first scheduled service trains runs on all of our 13 commuter rail lines," said SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams. First trains on Sundays start running around 6 a.m., she said.

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 continued to run.

"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 per cent over five years — or about 3 percentage points more than SEPTA has offered.

"My head's going to hurt by the end of this day," said volunteer Rusty Schwendeman of the Traveler's Aid Society, who had helped reroute about two dozen rail travellers Saturday morning at 30th Street Station.

They often involved several connections, longer routes or a significantly higher fare on Amtrak.

Carolyn Tola, of Hamilton Square, New Jersey, and three friends paid $40 apiece to take Amtrak from central New Jersey to Philadelphia to see the Pennsylvania Ballet instead of $9 on Septa.

"We're here," Tola said, noting that the ballet tickets were nonrefundable. "We're going to relax and enjoy it."

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.

The labour conflict came to a head this week after SEPTA announced it would impose a deal beginning Sunday. Terms include raising electrical workers' pay immediately by an average of about $3 per hour; the top wage rate for locomotive engineers would rise by $2.64 per hour.

The strike added to the commuting headaches in the region, where major construction projects are making it more difficult than usual to get around.

Drexel University dance team members Beverly and Angela Tomita, 18-year-old twins, had planned to take the airport line for a 2 p.m. flight home to Laguna Beach, California, for the summer.

"That's so not convenient!" Angela Tomita said when she found the region rail entrance closed at 30th Street Station. Schwendeman soon directed them to a subway-and-bus route.

"They're not the best answers, but they're the best answers I can come up with," Schwendeman told another teenager about her three-bus route home to suburban Blue Bell. "I don't want to send anybody to the middle of nowhere, either."

___

Associated Press writer Peter Jackson in Harrisburg contributed to this report.

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