Rail Workers, NJ Transit Reach Tentative Agreement Less Than 36 Hours Before Strike Deadline

Rail unions and the state have reached a tentative agreement for a new contract, averting a Sunday strike that threatened to paralyze the region. The strike would have forced many commuters to drive to New York City, stay in a city hotel for the week, or work from home.

Details on the settlement affecting about 4,2000 rail workers were not available Friday night. The rail unions still must ratify the deal.

About 140,000 people commute on NJ Transit rails each weekday, with about 105,000 of those commuters heading to New York City. The agency’s contingency plan, which included five park-and-ride bus locations including the Hamilton Train Station, would have only accommodated about 40 percent of the New York-bound passengers.

The tentative agreement was reached Friday night about 32 hours before the Sunday strike deadline.

“Thankfully for the commuters of NJ Transit, the crisis is averted,” Union Coalition Spokesman Stephen Burkert said.

Gov. Chris Christie held a press conference at about 7:30 p.m. Friday to discuss the settlement, though he did not provide details except to say the new contract expires at the end of 2019 and is retroactive to 2011.

Christie, who said cut his vacation short to deal with the negotiations, said the deal was good news for NJ Transit employees and commuters.

“I’m very happy that we resolved this agreement before out transit system and our economy were disrupted by the threatened strike,” Christie said. “Monday will be business as usual.”

The governor said he promised all 11 rail worker unions he would not disclose the terms of the deal until members have had a chance to review them. He also said there would be no immediate fare increases, but that periodic increases would be necessary to keep up with salary and health insurance costs. NJ Transit hiked fares an average of nine percent in July despite public outcry.

“There is always going to be the need for periodic fare increases,” Christie said. “What I hope other governors will follow after my tenure is to do these things on a regular basis to represent the costs incurred with running a transit system of this size.”

The new agreement came after negotiators met for several marathon bargaining sessions this week behind closed doors in Newark.

The rail union members have been working without a contract for almost five years. Two emergency federal labor boards convened by President Obama over the last several months favored proposals similar to the unions’ proposals for wage increases.

The board recommended that workers pay about 2.5 percent of their pay towards  health insurance premiums, but NJ Transit wanted employees pay between 10 and 20 percent of their health insurance premiums.