NJ Transit Labor Strife Could Hike Fares Further

By Maag, Christopher | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), June 25, 2015 | Go to article overview

NJ Transit Labor Strife Could Hike Fares Further


Maag, Christopher, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


Riders on NJ Transit are already hopping mad about a proposed 9 percent fare increase. Hundreds of them have bombarded the agency since April with angry emails, letters and in-person testimonials opposing the move, which will fill a $56 million budget gap if approved three weeks from now by NJ Transit's board members.

But what if this fare increase is only the beginning?

NJ Transit's unionized railroad employees have worked without a contract for four years. Now they are demanding a pay raise similar to the one received last year by Long Island Rail Road employees: 18 percent over six years. If they succeed, NJ Transit's labor costs could grow by as much as $69.3 million. Barring any deal between Governor Christie and state lawmakers to increase the gas tax and assuming Christie's proposed budget for next year doesn't tap new sources of money for NJ Transit, that could mean a second fare increase.

And if the full cost of the new labor contracts is placed on commuters, that fare increase could be as high as 11 percent.

"What! No kidding. That's too much money," said Margie Arbelaec, 50, a Clifton resident who spends $168 a month to ride the train every weekday to her job in Hoboken. "That's extremely high. It would be one-third of my weekly pay."

Arbelaec's monthly fare would jump by more than $30 if a 9 percent increase was followed by an 11 percent jump.

Nancy Snyder, a spokeswoman for NJ Transit, declined to discuss the labor negotiations. Recent developments suggest the agency is offering far less than the unions are demanding, however. NJ Transit and its unions have negotiated through the National Mediation Board since 2011, according to a press release by the unions. The board's process is designed to encourage the two sides to come together, said Frank N. Wilner, a contributing editor for Railway Age magazine who covers railroad labor relations.

Instead, they are growing further apart. All 17 unions that represent NJ Transit employees are working together now to fight the agency. The final union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, joined the coalition last week, said Thomas Roth, a labor consultant hired to represent the unions in the next round of negotiations. Such unity among unions is "very rare," said Roth, who has been involved in labor disputes for 40 years. "In fact this is the first time we've ever had a coalition like this."

Last week, the mediation board decided it was unlikely to produce an agreement and released both parties from further talks, setting up an emergency intervention by President Obama to prevent a potentially crippling strike.

"When it's obvious the two sides are so far apart they'll never agree, the National Mediation Board concludes it can't do anything," said Wilner, whose book "Understanding the Railway Labor Act"is about the federal law that governs the negotiation process.

The escalating fight is the latest in a series of battles between public employee unions and Christie, whose rise to national prominence was fueled in part by YouTube videos from town-hall- style events, including one angry exchange in 2010 in which he assailed the state's largest teachers union.

In 2011, Christie signed landmark legislation that forced police officers, teachers and other public union members to pay more toward their pension and health benefits. The year before, in another deal with Democratic lawmakers, Christie agreed to legislation that increased the state's contribution to the pension fund, a move endorsed by unions. Christie, however, failed to make those payments in full, and more than a dozen unions sued to try to force the governor to abide by the law. This month, the state Supreme Court sided with Christie.

Comparing railroads

To figure out what kind of salary and benefit increases rail workers in New Jersey deserve, federal mediators will compare NJ Transit to other railroads, labor experts said. …

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