Union officials representing rail workers said Wednesday their members are prepared to strike unless New Jersey Transit improves an offer they say would increase workers' health premiums by hundreds of dollars per month.

At an NJ Transit board meeting, the head of the union that represents conductors said 17 unions affected by the contract negotiations have authorized a strike if necessary.
"We have done everything in our power to avert this, but at some point I can't ask anyone to sign an agreement for a pay cut," said Stephen Burkert, general chairman of the SMART union's transportation division. "Nobody in their right mind would sign an agreement where they lose money."

The deadline for a possible walkout or lockout is 12:01 a.m. March 13.

A strike would be calamitous for tens of thousands of daily rail commuters in New Jersey, many of whom rely on trains to get into New York City. They would have to use buses or cars to cross the Hudson River at bridges and tunnels that already are routinely choked with traffic. Ferries are another option, but would require transportation to and from docks.
According to Burkert, NJ Transit's latest offer would force workers to pay between roughly $400 and $700 more per month in health insurance premiums. That would all but negate a wage increase, he said.

Interim NJ Transit executive director Dennis Martin didn't comment after the meeting Wednesday on specific proposals. He said the parties have a meeting scheduled but he didn't give the date. The two sides last met last week. "We're focused on the negotiations and finding an affordable solution to the issue," Martin said.

NJ Transit officials have said the raise plus rising employee health care payments would cost the agency an additional $138 million between now and 2018 and would force a fare hike.

A federal labor board created to mediate the dispute has recommended that NJ Transit raise train workers' pay by about 2.6 percent per year over the next 6 1/2 years. The Presidential Emergency Board said its recommendation would be consistent with wage increases at the other four large commuter rail carriers -- Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, MetroNorth and PATH.
NJ Transit operates 12 rail lines and more than 200 bus routes, and provides more than 295,000 passenger trips daily on its trains. NJ Transit's last strike was in 1983.

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