Union: Sides come closer to deal to avert NJ Transit strike

New Jersey Transit and rail worker unions on Tuesday were closer to a contract agreement to head off a strike than they were a day earlier, a union official said.

Stephen Burkert also told reporters during a break in the negotiations that talks were progressing without heated words or derogatory statements.

About 4,200 union workers have been without a contract for nearly five years. They have authorized a strike for 12:01 a.m. Sunday if contract talks don't pan out.

At stake is rail service for about 100,000 people who commute into New York each day. Of that number, only about 40,000 would be accommodated under a contingency plan outlined by NJ Transit last week that would feature expanded bus service and free park-and-ride lots.

The rest would be consigned to working at home, not working or braving the already congested roads, bridges and tunnels in the New York metro region. Transportation officials last week projected backups of 20 miles or more leading into the Lincoln and Holland tunnels if trains shut down.

The Partnership for New York City, a business organization, has estimated that a rail shutdown would cost New York City employers $5.9 million per hour and would hit the financial industry most heavily.

Two emergency federal panels convened by President Barack Obama in the last several months have made recommendations on wage increases and worker health care payments that have leaned toward the unions' proposals.

The recommendations include annual wage increases of about 2.6 percent over 6 1/2 years. NJ Transit, which had sought increases of about 1.4 percent, said the increases combined with rising health costs would force the agency to raise fares, an assertion the unions dispute.

In comments Monday, Republican Gov. Chris Christie said he wouldn't postpone a planned vacation beginning Tuesday to coincide with his 30th wedding anniversary. He said he would be briefed on progress with the negotiations and would step in if necessary.

"If there's a point where, based on the reports of my negotiators, where my involvement will be helpful in bringing together a resolution, I'd be happy to be involved," he said. "Up to this point, they have not believed my involvement would be helpful."
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