Hundreds of thousands of New Jersey Transit riders are less than a week away from a preventable commuting nightmare.

NJT workers have been without a contract for five years and negotiations have been under way for even longer. But the final cooling off period in the lengthy back and forth is midnight March 13, and if no agreement is reached, the trains will not run.

 “As long as we’re talking, I am always optimistic in negotiations because no one wants a strike. That said, I’ve never seen two parties this far apart after negotiations that have gone on this long,” said IBEW Railroad Department Director Bill Bohne.

By design, rail strikes are extremely rare. The federal Railway Labor Act, which covers interstate rail systems like NJT, requires multiple layers of mediation, arbitration, and cooling off periods before a strike is legal. There has not been a strike at NJT since it was created more than 30 years ago.

These contract negotiations might well break the streak.

The IBEW is negotiating with 13 other unions in the New Jersey Transit Rail Coalition representing 4,200 NJT workers including everyone from the men and women who drive the engines to the ticket takers who walk the cars. Their contract has been frozen since 2011.

As in so many other places, the main issue in the dispute is a contract proposal from the employer that increases worker healthcare costs by hundreds of dollars a month, but increases their pay by less than the rate of inflation. 

Every day 300,000 people -- more than the population of the Orlando, Fla., or Cincinnati-- ride NJT commuter trains. The vast majority pass under the East River leaving the bedroom communities made famous in the Sopranos for the glass and granite towers of Manhattan. But NJT also runs trains into Philadelphia, along the Jersey Shore and all the way to Atlantic City.

The result of a strike would be chaos for commuters and the businesses that rely on them.

“It would be terrible for commuters, and would damage the image of public transit which is very bad long term, but we are being put in an impossible situation,” Bohne said. “We have offered to compromise many times over the last five years. You can’t ask our members to put the well-being of their families at risk because we haven’t had a negotiating partner on the other side of the table that meets you.”

After years of stalemate, the National Mediation Board first tried to bring the parties together, but it was unable to resolve the conflict. Federally-required arbitrators also failed to bridge the gap.

President Obama then appointed a Presidential Emergency Board composed of neutral industry experts, and NJT and the union coalition presented their positions over the summer. When the PEB issued its recommendations in August, it largely mirrored the union position, rejecting NJT claims that workers were demanding “platinum-level” health benefits and “exorbitant” wages increases.

Nevertheless, NJT rejected the nonbinding recommendations, and asked for a second mediation.

A second PEB heard the arguments before the New Year, asking both parties for their last best offer. The union coalition offered the findings of the first PEB. NJT took the same position it adopted before mediation began.

“Neither side got everything they asked for in the first PEB but we made a good faith offer in the hope that this could be resolved,” Bohne said.

The second PEB examined labor contracts signed by other regional commuter rails and in its Jan. 11. recommendation, the second PEB sided with the union coalition.

At that time, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential campaign was still alive, and many observers drew a direct connection between NJT’s intransigence and Christie’s desire to build on his reputation as a straight shooting tough guy. Very few within the labor coalition, Bohne said, were surprised when the Christie appointed head of NJT rejected the second PEB.

In a letter to the New Jersey congressional delegation, NJT’s Interim Executive Director Dennis Martin wrote that both PEB recommendations were “excessive” and based on “myths peddled” by the unions.

Now the clock is ticking on the final cooling-off period. At midnight, March 13, rail workers can put down their tools. The only outside intervention possible at that point would be for Congress to impose a contract on the parties, a deal that would have to be signed by President Obama.

Historically, when Congress and the president impose a contract, they go with the recommendation of the PEB, a position that NJT could accept immediately.

“Maybe now that Gov. Christie is spending more time in his home state, he’ll see more clearly what a disaster stopping the trains would be,“ Bohne said.