Uniforms Shouldn’t Trigger SEPTA Strike

Is this the dumbest possible reason for a transit shutdown?

Septa regional rail train

When I heard last week the reason SEPTA might shut down due to strike this winter — leaving tens of thousands of commuters stuck in the February cold — I was positively Iversonian in my response.

“Uniforms? We talkin’ about uniforms?”

Er, well yes apparently.

SEPTA’s regional rail electrical workers accepted the terms of federal mediation. Engineers want to settle, but are balking at two provisions: The effective date of wage increases, and uniform requirements.

SEPTA engineers want simply to wear a vest. “We feel a shirt and additional outerwear would be appropriate,” SEPTA spokeswoman Jerri Williams told the paper.

That doesn’t sound like an excessive demand — and in reality, it’s not — but it turns out there’s a lot more to this battle than meets the eye. It’s been going on for years.

See, while you and I might think that a uniform would make a SEPTA engineer look a little more professional — say, like an airline pilot — the engineers think precisely the opposite. Paul Nussbaum explained in the Inquirer back in 2011:

SEPTA engineers have been suspicious of management’s efforts to get them into uniforms ever since SEPTA inherited the former Pennsylvania and Reading rail operations from Conrail in 1983. The engineers view uniforms as part of a broader effort by the agency to give them duties and pay scales similar to those of bus drivers and trolley operators, who earn less and collect fares from passengers.

“We consider ourselves locomotive engineers who work for a railroad that happens to be under SEPTA, not SEPTA employees who happen to be locomotive engineers,” Dorricott said.

In railroading tradition, uniformed conductors are in charge of the train, collecting fares and interacting with the passengers, while engineers operate the train.

Back then, the engineers were even resisting wearing the vests, arguing — implausibly — that they would make them a target for terrorists.

Even now, however, the engineers’ position amounts to this: Looking nice is for the SEPTA workers who deal with the public. Engineers don’t deal with the public — they deal with the train.

“We should not be put into a direct customer service look without some form of additional compensation. We help our customers as needed, but if most guys feel as I do, that is really not the scope of our work,” a member wrote at the engineers’ union website in August. “We operate trains. The safety of our passengers is our priority. Doing our job well is our priority.”

Which seems equal parts admirable and childish. Yes, do your job and do it well. But no, it wouldn’t hurt to look sharp and professional while doing it. Engineers’ interactions with the public aren’t that frequent, but a uniform would make them that much easier to find on the rare occasion they are needed.

On the other hand, this maybe isn’t the issue for which SEPTA needs to risk triggering a shutdown.

As Nussbaum explained in 2011, a uniform requirement would break with the traditions of American railroading. “Unlike airline pilots or bus drivers, engineers on most U.S. railroads do not wear uniforms, though they do in many other countries,” he wrote.

Hmmm. Maybe SEPTA should concentrate on finally catching up with where New York was 20 years ago in fare collection technology before the agency decides to start innovating new traditions in uniform requirements.

In other words, SEPTA and engineers: A pox on both your houses. Each of you is a little bit right and a little bit wrong on this issue — but if service comes to a halt (especially in winter) because of it, you’ll both share the blame. Solve the issue now, before it becomes a problem for your passengers.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.