What NJ Transit Rail Commuters Need to Know About Strike Threats
As New Jersey Transit engineers take a strike vote, NJ Transit CEO Kevin Corbett said there are a number of steps that will take months to complete under the Federal Railway Act before picket lines go up.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, the only NJ Transit union of 15 which has not agreed to a contract, is in the process of an email vote that would authorize leadership to call a strike.
BLET national president Eddie Hall said engineers and NJ Transit have been in federal mediation for three years. They have been working under the terms of their previous contract, which Hall said is much lower than pay at other commuter railroads.
“The absence of a pay raise during a period of high inflation has persisted for four years, which is too long. Our members cannot continue working for subpar wages. They have had enough,” Hall said in a statement, accusing NJ Transit of "delay tactics" that are causing some members to consider work for other railroads.
Federal steps to slow the roll toward any strike
NJ Transit President and CEO Kevin Corbet told New Jersey 101.5 that any legal job action is a long way from happening.
"Even if they get released from mediation, which there's no indication that's going to happen, there would then be a whole process that triggers a presidential emergency board would likely be convened like you saw with the freight railroads," Corbett said. "And then after that, 120 days from convening of the presidential emergency board comes a resolution. If that doesn't happen, there's another cooling off period of another 120 days and that's all governed under the federal Railway Labor Act."
Louis said once negotiations are released by the National Mediation Board, the union will be ready to "act." Corbett disagrees.
The relationship has not been easy, especially after a one-day job action in June 2022 during the Juneteenth holiday.
Because union members were still working under the terms of their old contract the day was not a holiday for them. Under the contract agreed to by the rest of the unions, Juneteenth was a holiday.
NJ Transit believed union leadership instigated a job action that led to an absence rate 30% higher than usual. Brown was warned that all engineers were expected to show up to work as scheduled.
Trains were canceled and service was impacted during the following weekend.
NJ Transit filed a lawsuit that resulted in a settlement that cost BLET $50,000 in legal fees. An injunction remains against any walkout by NJ Transit engineers. BLET believes under the Railway Act rules they could legally walk once mediation ends.
"For them to do an action regardless of the federal court order, would then put them in violation of their obligations under the Federal Railway Act, with the whole mediation process," Corbett said.
Engineer pay is fair
Corbett also disputed BLET's allegation that NJ Transit does not have the money to cover a raise. Louis said in his statement NJ Transit made a "fiscally irresponsible and immoral decision" to spend $440 million on a new headquarters without giving raises to engineers.
"We have the escrow that would be an additional $22.3 million if they were to sign tomorrow. They'd get retro pay for that once they sign. It's a little disingenuous, if that's the way they want to negotiate. We prefer the way we did it with the other unions but that's OK. But what is not OK is that they give false impressions to the riding public and misinform them," Corbett said.
The CEO says the pay for NJ Transit engineers is fair but the engineers and their union feels entitled to more but ultimately unaffordable.
"They already get a differential above conductors and ticket collectors and rear brakes and the trades. They feel they deserve significantly more, 15% to roughly 16% more about what's already been offered. And because of pattern bargaining, if we give that to them then would have to give it to the other unions," Corbett said. "Financially we just can't afford that.
Corbett said the union "cherry picks" commuter lines when comparing engineer salaries. When asked to compare engineering pay to other northeast railroads Corbett said NJ Transit is right in the middle, paying more than Conrail and SEPTA and less than Amtrak and the MTA.
"We have more robust benefits than Amtrak does. Amtrak and private freight they will lay off as we saw during the pandemic. We appreciate that they worked during the pandemic. We have great employees," Corbett said adding that NJ Transit did not lay anyone off even with very low ridership.