No Deal as New Jersey Transit, Unions End Talks for the Day

  • 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 Monday with railroad-worker unions, less than a week before the scheduled start of a strike that threatens to strand tens of thousands of Manhattan-bound commuters.

Officials emerged from a five-and-half-hour meeting Monday at a Newark hotel saying talks were hung up over whether workers should pay more for their health-care benefits.

“I can’t see any point in continuing to stay here to continue to talk about something where we’re not actually making real progress toward closing the gap between us,” said Gary Dellaverson, the railroad’s lead negotiator.

The unions have set a deadline of 12:01 a.m. on March 13 to strike if an accord isn’t reached. New Jersey Transit’s contingency plans, which rely on extra bus service, 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.

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.

Steve Burkert, a spokesman for the unions, said both sides are scheduled to meet Tuesday in Newark.

“I would have to disagree” that the unions aren’t willing to cooperate on health-care costs, Burkert told reporters. “We were still at the negotiating table” when New Jersey Transit representatives chose to leave, he said.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who ended his run for president last month, is leaving for a family vacation. He has said he will be gone three or four days and will be back by the end of this week, before the strike deadline.

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 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 last 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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