By DAVID PORTER and BEN FINLEY
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 into chaos.
The settlement with railroad workers who had threatened to walk off the job 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.
Union spokesman Stephen Burkert said a tentative agreement has been reached. He did not give any further details.
"Thankfully for the commuters of New Jersey Transit the crisis is averted," Burkert said.
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 offered average 1.4 percent wage increases and health insurance payments rising from 10 percent to 20 percent.
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 health insurance payments rising from 10 percent to 20 percent.
Two emergency labor boards convened by President 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.
The uncertainty over the contract talks had left commuters worrying Friday about how they were going to get back to work on Monday.
In New York, a business group estimated that each hour the rails are shut will cost businesses about $6 million.
The last NJ Transit strike was in March 1983, and it lasted 34 days.
Finley reported from Hamilton, New Jersey. Associated Press writer Karen Matthews in New York contributed to this story.