Gov. Phil Murphy had harsh criticism for New Jersey Transit workers that called in sick to such numbers that forced cancellation of services over the Juneteenth holiday weeknd.
“What happened last Friday was unacceptable…and I will go a little PG-13 here, it pissed me off,” said Murphy during a television appearance June 20. “It wasn’t a cold, snowy Tuesday in January. These guys did this knowing it was a Friday, in the summer, on a holiday weekend, trashing people’s either work commute or personal holiday plans. Completely despicable.”
The comments by Murphy came after NJ Transit went to court against the union that represents its engineers where a federal judge ordered the end to sickout over the weekend that caused widespread cancellations.
Upset With Unions
The agency went to court as it detailed in court documents that 205 engineers on June 17 (reportedly nearly three times for an average day), 143 on June 18, and at least 133 on June 19, reportedly over the issue of not having the Juneteenth as a paid holiday.
U.S. District Judge Christine P. O’Hearn ruled June 19 that such a pattern “can reasonably be construed as a job action” in her order. A full hearing on the matter was set for 9 a.m. June 21 in Camden.
Murphy, describing himself as a union guy and New Jersey is a “big union state,” was taken aback the actions of union engineers.
According to court documents, an email from Jim Brown, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLE&T), emailed to all train engineers June 14 about Juneteenth, a federal and state holiday that his union members don’t have off because of a labor dispute.
“NJT has made it clear that Engineers will not be paid for the holiday. Don’t let that deter you from celebrating THE HOLIDAY!!!” Brown wrote, according to court documents.
NJ Transit filed a complaint against the union seeking an injunction on Friday that was moved up due to the continued disruptions over the weekend.
“NJ Transit became aware of a rumor late in the day (June 16) that the locomotive engineers’ union, BLE&T, could potentially initiate an illegal job action today,” NJT’s Jim Smith said in a statement June 17. “It is clear that this is the result of an illegal job action. NJ Transit is disappointed that the union would perpetuate such an act on the more than 100,000 commuters who depend on NJ Transit rail service every day.”
According to the agency, James Devine, of NJ Transit’s labor and administration department, sent a warning letter urging members to come to work and called BLE&T’s Brown, whom he described in court documents as “combative,” and urged him to tell members to show up.
Additionally, Devine reportedly called BLE&T national representative Jim Louis as well, who said he had not heard about the rumored job action.
Illegally Job Action
In their lawsuit, NJT stated that the numbers in which union engineers called out “constitute(s) a strike in violation of their federal statutory obligations under the Federal Railway Labor Act. As a result of the BLE’s narrow-minded intentions, NJT’s operations have been severely disrupted while simultaneously ravaging the lives of hundreds of thousands of NJT passengers whose lives depend on NJT’s reliability.”
After O’Hearn issued a the temporary injunction forbidding union leaders from any actions including work stoppages and sick-outs that could interfere with NJ Transit operations, engineers received a subsequent notice from union officials that members they face discipline for unauthorized absences. Locomotive engineers who miss work without a legitimate reason could face discipline, fines or jail.
“To be clear, the BLE&T does not support or condone any employee marking off without a legitimate and authorized reason for doing so,” the notice stated.
Stalled Contract Talks
At issue in the job action is the celebration of Juneteenth, which the state recognizes as the third Friday in June. The union and NJT agreed on the celebration last year and for it to be addressed in future contracts. All except the BLE&T have agreed and signed on to new contracts with the agency. Those with new contracts were eligible to observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday.
NJ Transit and the BLE&T have engaged in mediation since 2020, but the union requested release from mediation this past March. It has not been approved by the National Mediation Board.
As a result of the work no-shows, thousands of customers faced hampered commutes over the weekend. Many were stranded Friday evening as the agency was forced to cancel service, providing some bus substitution and pay to cross-honor tickets on other systems, like PATH and the NY Waterway ferry.