N.J. Transit Rail Unions Say They're Closer to Contract Deal

  • Workers may walk off job amid dispute over wages and benefits
  • Contingency plan would force 65,000 to find their own way

New Jersey Transit’s contract talks with railroad workers took a positive turn, with both sides saying progress has been made toward a deal.

“We’re closer today than we were yesterday,” Steve Burkert, a spokesman for the 11-union coalition, told reporters after six hours of closed-door meetings at a Newark hotel Tuesday. Talks broke off the previous night after more than five hours, with health-care contributions a major sticking point.

Talks are to continue Thursday after both sides review the latest proposal. Details remain confidential. The unions have set a March 13 deadline for a strike that threatens to strand tens of thousands of Manhattan-bound workers who rely on the nation’s second-biggest commuter railroad.

“I feel better now than I did last night,” said Gary Dellaverson, the railroad’s lead negotiator.

Contracts for 4,200 unionized rail workers expired in 2011. An emergency negotiating board appointed by President Barack Obama had recommended that New Jersey Transit adopt the final offer made by the Rail Labor Coalition, representing 11 unions, at a cost of $183 million. The offer called for a six-and-a-half-year contract with annual raises of 1.5 percent to 3.5 percent and a maximum 5 percent annual health-care contribution, according to the presidential board report.

New Jersey Transit said the state couldn’t afford the recommendation. The agency had offered a 7 1/2-year contract that skipped raises for 2011, awarded $1,000 lump-sum payments for 2012 and had annual increases of 1 percent to 2.5 percent. It wanted employees to cover as much as 20 percent of medical costs.

The agency’s strike contingency plans rely on extra bus service and can accommodate just four in 10 train commuters. About 65,000 people will have to make alternate arrangements, the agency said, and can anticipate backups of as much as 25 miles on major roadways including the New Jersey Turnpike and Interstate 78.

If workers strike, the agency plans to establish park-and-ride lots so rail commuters can transfer to buses or the PATH subway to reach the city. The buses will operate on a first-come, first-served basis weekdays. For riders who will be shut out, the agency is urging employers to allow telecommuting and a four-day work week.

New Jersey railroad employees last walked off the job in 1983, a stoppage that lasted more than a month.

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