NJ Transit and a locomotive engineers union have not been able to negotiate a new contract for more than three years. (Fran Baltzer for New Jersey Monitor)
NJ Transit’s locomotive engineers unanimously backed a strike authorization vote after years at a negotiating standstill, but the union still faces long waits before it can launch a job action that would cripple the region’s transportation system.
Eighty-one percent of the NJ Transit Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen’s 494 members returned ballots, and each of the 397 ballots that were counted backed a strike. Thursday was the deadline to vote.
Eddie Hall, president of the national Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, said the union is fed up with NJ Transit’s “misplaced priorities, deceit and stonewalling.”
The vote will not immediately allow the union to launch a strike, as the union and NJ Transit are still in mediation before the National Mediation Board.
“We are still actively engaged in mediation with the union and a strike is not permissible while mediation is ongoing — that would be a violation of the Railway Labor Act,” said Jim Smith, an agency spokesperson.
The union had hoped an overwhelming strike would push negotiations out of the board’s purview. The federal body has presided over mediation efforts between NJ Transit and the union for more than three years, and the union has been without a contract since late 2019.
NJ Transit has sought to award the union a contract that matches agreements awarded to the agency’s other bargaining units in a process called pattern bargaining.
The engineers union has said the wage hikes proposed by the agency are uncompetitive with local engineer salaries in other states and do not reflect the stress and training requirements their workers undergo.
“We would prefer to reach a voluntary settlement, but make no mistake — with this vote, the clock is now ticking,” Hall said. “The process to be granted release from the NMB has begun. As soon as it is lawful for us to act, we will.”
The union still faces a long road to any strike. Because rail strikes can have devastating economic effects, rail workers are subject to more stringent regulation than counterparts in other fields, and commuter railroads like NJ Transit face even stricter strike rules.
Railway labor disputes first go to the National Mediation Board, and they remain there until the board releases the case. It is not required to do so, and if it chooses to, will do so on its own timeline.
The release triggers a 30-day waiting period if either party declines to enter arbitration.
Once that period ends, the president of the United States is required to convene an emergency board that triggers a 120-day standstill on job actions upon receiving a request from the governor of any state serviced by the railroad.
Such a request could come from Gov. Phil Murphy or from New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro.
If no resolution is reached within the first 120-day lockout, the president can — but is not required to — convene a second presidential emergency board that creates a second waiting period of up to 120 days.
Totaled, the union will have to wait at least five months after the National Mediation Board releases their case, and that waiting period could stretch to nine months.
Complicating matters further is an existing injunction barring NJ Transit strikes that was issued after the agency’s engineers staged a sickout over holiday pay on Juneteenth 2022.
A federal judge earlier this month told union officials to inform their members that they must show up for work on Labor Day weekend, but she declined to issue new restraints, finding the state had provided no evidence the members were planning to immediately launch a job action.
“The injunction specifically prohibits the union from engaging in any strike or job action,” Smith said. “The new court order also required that the union e-mail their members to remind them that the injunction remains in place to ensure service is uninterrupted over the holiday weekend.”
The strike vote comes as NJ Transit faces staggering budget shortfalls in the coming years.
Agency revenue — a mix of fare collections, subsidies, and budget diversions — is expected to fall $119.4 million below expenses in the fiscal year that begins next July, and the shortfall is expected to expand to $917.8 in the following year.
Agency officials have raised the prospect of fare hikes and service cuts to close the funding gap, and lawmakers have yet to identify a stable, dedicated funding source for the country’s largest statewide public transportation system.
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