Possible rail strikes in 2024 could disrupt Northeastern commutes and public transit’s Covid recovery

As the country’s public transit systems try to get back on track from the Covid-19 pandemic, Northeastern railroad unions are threatening strikes that could damage the recovery.

Unions representing workers on systems vital to New York City, Philadelphia and New Jersey are considering walkouts, strikes and other job actions that would disrupt the commutes for thousands and thousands of people in the most densely populated region of the country.

The prospect of job actions at the region’s essential commuter networks could cause a headache for the two states’ Democratic governors — New York’s Kathy Hochul and New Jersey’s Phil Murphy — and become an unwanted distraction for President Joe Biden during his reelection campaign.

The talk comes amid a spring and summer of strikes in other industries — from actors and writers in Hollywood to nurses, doctors and professors in New York and New Jersey, with threats of more to come from New York City school bus drivers.

Many of the commuter rail unions argue they worked through the pandemic — literally keeping the trains running — and their heroism is not being rewarded with higher wages.

“There has not been a substantial enough recognition of what happened during Covid,” said John Samuelsen, the international president of Transportation Workers of America, which represents 140,000 transportation workers.

So far, transit agencies are focused on tempering strike talk by pointing out that no legal job action can happen until well into next year because of elaborate and time-consuming cooling-off periods railroad unions must go through first.

Tension in New York

Perhaps the most bitter transit labor dispute now is one Samuelsen is leading on behalf of 600 car inspectors, coach cleaners and mechanics who work for Metro-North, the commuter rail system operated by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority that connects New York City, the Hudson Valley and parts of Connecticut.

TWU has launched an ad campaign attacking the head of MTA, Janno Lieber, and has threatened a walkout and a strike. Samuelsen said other workers, including engineers, would not cross its picket lines.

The union argues its Metro-North workers are not getting the same economic package that MTA’s subway workers received and that the MTA is asking for loose language in the contract that would allow the agency to unilaterally reopen the contract.

Samuelson — who also sits on the MTA board — called the agency an “institutionally depraved entity” that couldn’t be trusted. He reckons that Lieber thinks President Joe Biden will have his back, given how Biden was viewed as siding with freight rail companies last year to avert a union strike. But, Samuelson said, things are different now — 2024 is an election year and the president needs labor.

“He’s willing to risk the shutdown of Metro-North based on his unsophisticated analysis of Washington, D.C.,” Samuelson said of Lieber.

The MTA did not comment on that element of the negotiations but points out a strike cannot happen until nine months after a formal cooling-off period is triggered.

“The notion that there’s going to be a strike this year is just not true,” Catherine Rinaldi, the president of Metro-North, said recently.

The cooling-off period can’t begin until the union is released from mediation by the National Mediation Board. In dueling memos obtained by POLITICO, the union wants to be released now, while the MTA points out that the three-member board, which is appointed by the president, usually holds on to cases for years.

Metro-North and TWU started mediation earlier this year and have had only two sessions. The timeline suggests a strike may not be possible during the coming 2024 election year.

But that hasn’t stopped strike talk or confusion. In a letter to its members, another Metro-North union — Transportation Communications Union/IAM — sought to calm its own members down, since a legal TWU strike would prompt other unions to face picket lines they would likely honor, or a lockout by Metro-North.

“TWU’s own press release advises that they are prepared to strike once they are released from mediation,” the Transportation Communications Union’s vice president wrote to members. “While we cannot speak to the status of other unions, decades of precedent and our own union history support that the National Mediation Board will not be releasing TWU from negotiations anytime soon.”

Wages a concern in New Jersey, Philadelphia

A similar dynamic is happening at NJ Transit, which gets suburban New Jersey commuters in and out of New York City. Transit officials are urgently trying to tamp down the notion that a strike of the agency’s engineers is imminent. That’s especially important in the state with its off-cycle election years, which means that all 120 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot this fall.

NJ Transit even went to court unsuccessfully trying to block a strike vote by its engineers’ union, though a judge did order the union to make clear a strike wasn’t imminent. The transit union is scheduled to vote to authorize a strike Friday.

The transit agency has reason to be concerned since some engineers did an illegal job action last summer that stranded thousands of commuters.

The issues there are, of course, also wages. In the negotiations, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen said it and NJ Transit are about $6 or $7 an hour apart on wages.

The union said its engineers need to make closer to what other engineers in the region make, particularly given generous hiring packages being offered by Amtrak.

The NJ Transit engineers are also attacking the agency for leasing expensive new headquarters at costs that led Republican state lawmakers to call for an investigation. During election season this fall, the union is expected to hammer the agency over its “luxury” headquarters and also try to shame Murphy, who has touted his work to save NJ Transit by hiring more engineers when he took office.

Jim Louis, national vice president for the engineers union, said he hopes Murphy and other lawmakers don’t forget about the engineers now.

“I’d really like to know which ones are really supporting us and which ones are just lip service,” he said.

NJ Transit has argued the engineers are the only one of the 15 rail unions that represent agency workers that have yet to sign a contract. The agency, which is usually tight-lipped, released a lengthy public statement attacking the union for creating “unwarranted and unnecessary public alarm,” “misleading characterizations” of it and “inexplicable” refusal to sign a contract.

Union representatives for engineers at NJ Transit and SEPTA — the rail system based in Philadelphia — argue their workers can make more money simply walking across the platform to jobs at other transit agencies.

That’s because NJ Transit and SEPTA share some stations with Amtrak. And NJ Transit is close to other systems with more generous salaries — like Metro-North, Long Island Railroad and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s PATH. Union officials repeatedly suggested their benchmark is about $50 an hour for engineers.

At SEPTA, where engineers are also represented by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, union officials argue lower wages have created an engineer shortage. According to agency figures, there are 174 engineers, roughly 40 fewer than the agency has budgeted for and about 25 fewer than were there before the pandemic. There are also 26 would-be engineers in various stages of training.

Don Hill, general chair of the local union that represents SEPTA engineers, blames wages.

“The company’s managers refuse to want to address it, or say it, or even speak,” he said.

The union has not threatened a strike, but Hill said stalled negotiations — which, like other unions, are in mediation — have created “a strong itch” for job actions among union members.

“SEPTA is committed to reaching an agreement that is fair to employees and to the fare-paying riders and taxpayers who fund our operations,” said agency spokesperson Andrew Busch.

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