If NJ Transit workers strike, can they be ordered back to work?
As a strike date looms, NJ Transit and a coalition of 17 rail unions will be back at the bargaining table this week to continue their battle over contract negotiations.
The main sticking point, according to union officials, is a plan to hike health insurance premiums by hundreds of dollars per month.
If an agreement isn't reached, union officials have indicated that rail workers are prepared to strike on March 13.
With so many people commuters relying on NJ Transit trains, a strike is likely to cause chaos.
And if a strike should happen, not even President Barack Obama has the authority to order workers back to work.
“Outside intervention is not something that is in the law right now. It would take an act of Congress to change that,” said Martin Robins, an expert with the Alan Voorhees Transportation Center at Rutgers University.
Walter Zullig, a rail law expert and the former General Counsel for Metro North in New York, agrees that if a strike takes place, no one will be able to do anything.
“I don’t see that happening under the Railway Labor Act. There’s no provision for that. I don’t see any basis for the president to stop it,” Zullig said. "Once all of this process that’s in the Railway Labor Act has been followed and has been exhausted, they have the right to strike. That is their ultimate weapon."
Zullig added if NJ Transit workers do walk out, Congress would probably not get involved and try to force the strike to end for at least three to four weeks.
Robins said if a strikes take place it will have a very severe negative effect in more ways than one.
“Anytime you introduce uncertainty into the provision of public transportation, you undermine one of its basic virtues and you undermine the loyalty of the ridership,” Robins said. “It’s always a very painful and worrisome thing to have strikes.
In the end, Robins said the strike will impact the rail riders the most who will be forced to find other ways to get to work.
“It will hurt the riders, the innocent people who are trying to get to work everyday to earn a living for their family. It’s really a very stressful situation,” Robins said.
A strike is likely to result in added congestion on some of New Jersey's busiest highways like the New Jersey Turnpike, and is also likely to create issues for the bridges and tunnels leading into New York City.
Robins said the unions have built up a lot of resentment because they’ve been working without a contract for almost five years, which he said is probably not helping matters at the bargaining table.
“That’s not the way to conduct labor relations because that builds in sort of a fiscal time bomb and an emotional time bomb.”
But there's still hope a strike will be averted.
Robins said it appears many workers don’t want to go on strike, and they haven’t walked out in over 30 years. In addition, Gov. Chris Christie's proposed operating budget for NJ Transit may be signaling that he has more flexibility than we thought, which Robins said could help the parties reach an agreement.