Members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) of the Teamsters Rail Conference have voted to grant BLET National President Eddie Hall the authority to call a strike at New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit), which runs the nation’s third-largest commuter railroad.
The union on Aug. 7 reported that it had begun mailing strike authorization ballots to NJ Transit locomotive engineers. The ballots were due 12 p.m. EDT on Aug. 31. On Aug. 31, BLET reported results showing 81% of the eligible 494 union voters cast ballots, with 100% of them in support of strike authorization.
NJ Transit and the BLET have been embroiled in a contract dispute for four years, almost three of which have been spent in National Mediation Board (NMB)-sponsored mediation.
“The BLET wants a contract that gives its members wages more in line with what engineers at other commuter railroads make,” the union reported Aug. 7. “Except for one other transit agency, NJ Transit’s engineers are the lowest paid engineers working in commuter service in the nation.”
“I am confident that 100% of the ballots returned will be in favor of striking NJ Transit,” BLET National President Eddie Hall said Aug. 7. “We will be one step closer to ‘self-help’ once the ballots are counted later this month and just prior to the Labor Day weekend. I want to stress that BLET shall comply with the rules of the Railway Labor Act. However, once released by the National Mediation Board, we will be ready to act. What we really want is a fair contract for engineers and to ensure uninterrupted train services for passengers.”
On Aug. 31, Hall followed up, saying: “NJ Transit’s locomotive engineers have spoken loud and clear.” He noted that “NJ Transit’s managers wasted taxpayer dollars by going to court this month in a frivolous and failed attempt to block our vote count and strip us of our rights. They would rather litigate than negotiate. We would prefer to reach a voluntary settlement, but make no mistake, with this vote the clock is now ticking. The process to be granted release from the NMB has begun. As soon as it is lawful for us to act, we will.”
NJ Transit spokesperson Jim Smith on Aug. 31 told NJ Advance Media that “[w]e 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.”
In court on Aug. 17, NJ Transit “contended the [union] vote and union statements violated a June 2022 court order against any wildcat job actions and sought a contempt of court ruling,” according to NJ Advance Media. “NJ Transit attorneys argued the union planned to strike on a day after the vote on Sept. 1 . The judge dismissed NJ Transit‘s motion but did issue an order that required the union to email members they were not to strike after the vote to comply with the June 2022 order, court documents said.”
The 2022 court order was issued after a job action on June 17, 2022, the Juneteenth holiday. NJ Transit engineers marked off as sick, resulting in hundreds of train cancellations and suspension of service. The sick-outs and cancellations continued into the weekend. NJ Transit went to court and obtained an order directing its engineers to return to work, as well as a permanent court order barring them from staging what the agency said would be another “illegal strike.”
On June 15, 2023, NJ Transit resolved a settlement with the National BLET in the amount of $50,000, which NJ Advance Media said was to “recover costs to cross-honor rail tickets, deploy and pay extra workers in 2022.”
NJ Transit President and CEO Kevin Corbett told NJ Advance Media early last month that the agency wanted to “reassure riders there is a federal court order against a strike and there is a long [mediation] process that goes well into 2024.” He added that the strike vote is “symbolic,” designed to pressure NJ Transit into a settlement favorable to the BLET.
Railway Labor Act mediation can last indefinitely, provided there is a reasonable chance of a settlement. If mediation fails to produce a settlement, the NMB can ask—not force—the parties to enter binding arbitration. If binding arbitration is rejected, a 30-day cooling off period is imposed to maintain the status quo: The union doesn’t strike and the railroad doesn’t lock employees out.
Of NJ Transit’s 15 rail unions, the BLET is the only one without a new contract. The agency “wants the union to accept a similar agreement and salary increases that other rail unions agreed to,” according to NJ Advance Media. The other unions agreed to “pattern-based bargaining,“ with wage increases starting at 2% and gradually rising to 3% on the fifth contract year. Corbett defended this practice, used nationally and which its other unions accepted, the media outlet reported in early August. Corbett noted: “We’ve negotiated in good faith. We have respect for our unions; 14 of 15 signed contracts. The BLET feels they’re special. We believe in collective bargaining and pattern-based bargaining.”
The BLET maintains that locomotive engineers deserve a higher salary than other train crew members because they have more responsibility; qualifying to operate a train involves rigorous training to learn physical characteristics and safety rules. NJ Transit engineer salaries should not be lower than those at Amtrak and MTA Long Island Rail Road because the three carriers share operating territory (for example, the Northeast Corridor between Trenton, N.J. and Penn Station New York/Sunnyside Yard for NJT and Amtrak), the union reported.
NJT issued the following statement on Aug. 10:
“To begin, NJ Transit has great respect for the men and women who make up the locomotive engineer ranks. We also have the utmost respect for labor and the collective bargaining process—and no one has been a more ardent supporter of labor than [New Jersey Democrat] Governor [Phil] Murphy. We are committed to continuing to negotiate in good faith as we have since the start of this process.
“While we certainly appreciate the BLET’s frustration, we too are frustrated—and disappointed —by the misleading characterizations their leadership has made in recent statements. We believe it’s our obligation, in the interest of public trust, that we correct that record.
“Assertions that NJ TRANSIT is somehow responsible for the absence of a pay raise for four years and that BLET members are working for subpar wages is disingenuous. Wages are competitive with railroads in the region and, historically, it’s a matter of public record that locomotive engineers have been among the top earners of all NJ Transit employees—union and non-union. Further, the choice to continue to work without a pay raise is the BLET’s, alone. We agree that four years is too long, and we urge the BLET to join the other 14 unions who signed the contract and have been enjoying their generous annual increases. Let’s get this contract signed and get these employees paid.
“The BLET has also said NJ Transit is ‘unwilling to spend a dime on train crews.‘ In fact, we have 223 million dimes waiting for the BLET members when they sign the contract. That’s right, we have committed $22.3 million in salary increases for BLET members over the 4 years of the current contract. And, all of that is retroactive to the engineers as soon as they sign the contract. The average locomotive engineer earning $97,000 annually would be earning $109,212 at the end of the current four-year contract. It’s inexplicable why the BLET leadership would leave tens of millions of dollars in salary on the table that should be going to their members.
“The BLET’s recent press release authorizing a strike vote has also misled customers, members of the public, the media, and elected officials by making it appear that a strike could happen as early as Labor Day weekend—we heard from all of these constituencies with their concerns this week. Their release created unwarranted and unnecessary public alarm because the BLET is currently prohibited from striking while we are in active mediation. In addition to the provisions of the Railway Labor Act, which prohibit parties from engaging in ‘self-help’ measures while engaged in active mediation, there is also a federal court injunction in place that provides additional protections to NJ Transit from a threat of strike. The court order was entered immediately following the illegal job action orchestrated by the BLET local on June 17, 2022, that severely disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of NJ Transit customers who depend on rail service every day.
“There’s an old expression: ‘The whole army can’t be out of step.’ We have made a fair and pattern-based contract offer that has been accepted and ratified by 14 of our 15 rail unions covering 91% of our rail union employees. The BLET is the only union to not accept these terms. The BLET asking to be treated differently than 91% of NJ TRANSIT’s rail union employees, and 95% of all NJ Transit’s unionized employees combined, demanding to receive exceedingly more than every other union that signed the contract is simply out of step and not consistent with the rest of the state.
”We look forward to getting a signed contract that delivers the same benefits to our locomotive engineers that every other rail union member currently enjoys, and ensures that NJ Transit customers can continue to count on convenient, reliable and uninterrupted rail service.”