NJ Transit, unions meet in final days to avert strike

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Negotiations between New Jersey Transit and its rail workers unions are heading into the final days before a weekend strike deadline, and the possibility of havoc on the region's already congested roadways.

The two sides met for several hours Thursday at a Hilton hotel in downtown Newark, two days after their representatives expressed optimism at the tenor of the negotiations. They plan to resume talks on Friday morning.

NJ Transit's special counsel said he was still optimistic that a deal could be struck before the 12:01 a.m. Sunday deadline but that key issues such as wages and health care remained in play.

More than 4,000 NJ Transit rail workers have authorized a strike for early Sunday. Both sides have yet to agree on wage increases, health care costs and the length of a contract.

Unions have been working without a contract for nearly five years.

Union officials didn't comment on what transpired during Thursday's negotiating session, but expressed anger that NJ Transit had sent a notice to union-covered employees Wednesday telling them that in the event of a strike, all employees on sick leave would no longer receive compensation and striking employees would have their health benefits discontinued.

An NJ Transit spokesman said the notice is required under federal law.

About 105,000 people commute into New York via NJ Transit, the nation's third-largest commuter railroad.

NJ Transit warned last week that only about four in 10 rail commuters will be able to get into New York on the extra buses the agency said it would press into service as a contingency plan. That is projected to create backups of 20 miles or more at the chronically jammed Lincoln and Holland tunnels, traffic experts said last week.

Two emergency federal labor boards convened by President Barack Obama over the last several months leaned toward the unions' proposals, but NJ Transit rejected those recommendations as too costly for the agency to absorb without another fare increase. NJ Transit has raised fares twice in the last six years.