NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Transit and its rail workers reached a tentative deal Friday to avert a strike that would have thrown Monday's commute into New York City into chaos.
The settlement with railroad workers who had threatened to walk off the job Sunday morning ends a dispute that has been percolating for nearly five years, when the last contract expired. It avoids the agency's first strike in more than 30 years.
"Thankfully for the commuters of New Jersey Transit the crisis is averted," union spokesman Stephen Burkert said. "We are going home to our families."
Gov. Chris Christie said the contract, which will go through 2020, was settled with the interest of taxpayers and fare payers "placed ahead of other interests." He said negotiations were done in good faith throughout and commuters "will get on the train Monday morning, and it will be business as usual."
Christie said the deal does not require a fare hike or service cuts, at least through June 2017.
"I'm pleased. I think we came to a fair, reasonable accommodation to the interests of the union and the interests of the taxpayers of the state," Christie said.
Christie and Burkert would not give additional details of the tentative agreement. Christie said he was leaving time for the union to lay out the deal to its members before a ratification vote.
"I think both sides think they did very well," he said.
About 105,000 people commute into New York by train each weekday, either on NJ Transit or in combination with PATH. NJ Transit had warned that only about 4 in 10 of those riders would have been able to get to New York on the extra buses the transit agency said it would provide as a contingency plan.
The unions had been seeking a 2.9 percent annual wage increase over six years plus an increase in health insurance payments from 1.8 percent to 2 percent of straight pay. NJ Transit initially offered average 1.4 percent wage increases and proposed workers pay between 10 percent and 20 percent of their health care premium costs.
Two emergency labor boards convened by President Barack Obama over the last eight months had favored the union's numbers and recommended pay raises of about 2.6 percent and health payment increases of 2.5 percent. They disagreed with NJ Transit's contention that the unions' wage and health insurance demands should be judged against other state workers rather than against other rail carriers in the region.
Christie said that the contract agreement is for longer than what the board had recommended.
The uncertainty over the contract talks had left commuters worrying this week about how they were going to get back to work on Monday. Christie said he wasn't concerned with the amount of time that the negotiations took and blamed the media for creating "hysteria."
"I don't believe the members of the union wanted to strike," Christie said. "They don't want to hurt the customers and inconvenience them. You can tell when people are spoiling for a fight. Neither side was spoiling for a fight."
The last NJ Transit strike was in March 1983, and it lasted 34 days.
Associated Press writer Ben Finley, in Hamilton, New Jersey, and Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this story.