New Jersey Transit Fails to Reach Labor Deal After Talks

  • Railroad-worker strike is scheduled to begin on March 13
  • Contingency plan would accommodate 38% of NYC rail commuters

New Jersey Transit failed to reach a labor agreement with railroad-worker unions after a day of negotiations, amid a looming strike scheduled to begin March 13 that threatens to strand tens of thousands of Manhattan-bound commuters.

The sides met in Washington on Friday in an attempt to resolve a dispute over wages and benefits. Talks ended about 3:30 p.m. because the mediation board office was closing, said Steve Burkert, a spokesman for the unions. They will meet again on March 7 in Newark, New Jersey, he said.

Burkert said the sides met face to face and each offered some ground. He characterized the talks as “amicable” and said “there’s never been hostility.”

“The whole game plan was up for discussion and both sides pushed in,” he said. He declined to specify proposals.

Gary Dellaverson, hired to negotiate for New Jersey Transit, declined to speak to a reporter at the board office. Dellaverson is a New York-based attorney and former finance chief for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Nancy Snyder, a railroad spokeswoman, confirmed in an e-mail the schedule for the next round of talks. Brian Murray, a spokesman for Governor Chris Christie, declined to comment in an e-mail.

Labor contracts expired in 2011 for 4,200 unionized rail workers. 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 their medical costs.

On Thursday, the agency released a strike-contingency plan that could accommodate only about 38 percent of Manhattan-bound commuters. It 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 on weekdays. For riders who will be shut out, the agency is urging employers to allow telecommuting and a four-day work week.

Funding for New Jersey Transit in the annual state budget has fallen to about $33 million from $350 million in 2005 when adjusted for inflation, according to a report released Thursday by New Jersey for Transit, a coalition pushing for more spending. The drop has led the nation’s third-largest commuter system to raise fares five times since 2002, and divert money for capital improvements to cover operating costs, the group said.

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

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