New Jersey Transit, Unions End Talks for the Day as Strike Looms

  • Mass-transit agency and unions negotiating wages and benefits
  • Fewer than three days to strike that would cripple commute

New Jersey Transit and 11 railroad unions wrapped up contract talks Thursday without announcing a deal, three days ahead of the scheduled start of a strike that would strand tens of thousands of Manhattan-bound commuters.

Both sides met for about six-and-half hours in Newark, where talks resumed after a day-long break for each side to review the latest proposals. While negotiations are set to resume Friday, the railroad told employees Thursday that in the event of a strike, unionized employees would be suspended and benefits including health coverage would be discontinued.

“This draconian action taken by N.J. Transit while the parties are engaged in the negotiation process illustrates N.J. Transit’s unreasonable position and unwillingness to reach an amiable solution which is fair to both parties,” the unions said in a prepared statement.

A strike is authorized to begin March 13 if no deal is reached. The agency’s contingency plans, which rely on extra bus service, can accommodate just 38 percent of regular weekday rail riders. New Jersey Transit urged businesses to allow their employees to work from home, and warned that the major highways would be backed up for as much as 25 miles.

Gary Dellaverson, New Jersey Transit’s negotiator, declined to speak with reporters when the session ended. Steve Burkert, a spokesman for the unions, read the statement aloud and then declined to answer reporters’ questions.

An emergency board convened by President Barack Obama recommended in January that the agency adopt the unions’ offer, which 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.

New Jersey Transit said the state couldn’t afford the $183 million cost of the recommendation. It had offered a seven-and-a-half-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.

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