Only hours before a strike that would have stranded tens of thousands of commuters, union workers and New Jersey Transit came to terms.
The deal was struck March 11, after NJ Transit added nearly $50 million in wages and benefits to its previous offer, said IBEW Railroad Department Director Bill Bohne.
The final terms of the agreement have not been released, but Bohne said the eight-and-a-half-year deal, with five years retroactive pay, came very close to the union position that had been endorsed by two presidential emergency boards over the last year. The major difference was that the pay increases were spread over a longer period.
“In the end we have a deal that is a win for the state, a win for the workers and a win for our customers,” Bohne said.
If the negotiations had failed, the more than 300,000 people who use NJ Transit Railroad every day, more than 100,000 into Manhattan alone, would have been effectively stranded. NJ Transit announced plans to increase bus service, but only enough to carry 40,000 more riders. With the first NJ Transit strike in 20 years set for Sunday night, many workers left work Friday night unsure of how they would get back on Monday.
“We got an agreement because there was a lot of political and public pressure on New Jersey Transit to keep the trains running,” Bohne said. “I thought it was wonderful that the pressure was on.”
The 4,200 union rail workers will receive wage increases of approximately 2.5 percent per year over the term of the agreement, with retroactive wage payments dating back to March 1, 2012, paid in two lump-sum increments. Certain changes were made to the health care plans and members will be paying more for their coverage, but the changes were in line with the recommendations of the two PEBs.
“What they first offered in pay increases would not have covered the increase in health care costs that NJT was demanding,” Bohne said. “All 11 unions were united. That wasn’t good enough.”
Two weeks ago, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had characterized the union contract offer as “outrageous” and warned that an agreement on those terms would require an increase in ticket prices. After the deal was announced, however, Christie told a news conference that no fare increases were needed until June 2017 at the earliest.
“I think we came to a fair, reasonable accommodation to the interests of the union and the interests of the taxpayers of the state," Christie said. “People generally don’t settle until they have to. We’re about 30 hours or so from ‘have to.’ So we got it done.”
When a strike was averted last year at the Long Island Railroad, union leaders and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the deal together. It is a sign of the strain between NJ Transit and labor that Christie and union leaders gave separate news conferences announcing the deal. In fact Christie has no involvement in the negotiations at all.
Labor coalition organizations will now send the contract to the membership for ratification, which should be wrapped up in a few weeks.
“What was accomplished here is a true testament to the solidarity of all 11 rail labor unions and their members,” Bohne said, particularly New York Local 1573 General Chairman John MacDonald and President Kevin Kirsch and IBEW System Council No. 7 General Chairman Arthur Davidson, Assistant General Chairman Steve Corrado and their staff. “And thanks to International President Lonnie Stephenson for his support during this dispute.”