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Teamsters Local 676 and Willig, Williams & Davidson Take the Fight to Governor Christie and Win

January 26, 2011

Arbitrator restores free DRPA rides (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

By Paul Nussbaum

Union workers are entitled to free rides on Delaware River Port Authority toll bridges and PATCO trains despite Gov. Christie's demand that the perks be taken away, an arbitrator has ruled.

DRPA employees saw their free commuting privileges and 100 no-cost bridge crossings a year rescinded in August and September, at Christie's request.

That move violated their contracts, arbitrator Gerard B. Restaino ruled Monday. The free passage must be restored, and employees must be reimbursed for tolls and fares they paid since the policy change, the arbitrator said.

"Even though DRPA/PATCO argues that the dispute is not with them but with the governor of the State of New Jersey, the governor of New Jersey did not negotiate this agreement," Restaino wrote in his 21-page decision. "The employer cannot walk away from its solemn obligations under the collectively negotiated agreements."

The order applies to about 500 workers represented by three unions, including toll collectors, train operators, mechanics, and police officers. It does not apply to nonunion workers, who also lost their free rides.

DRPA officials said Tuesday that they had not decided whether to take the dispute to court.

"We have received the arbitrator's ruling, and we are reviewing it with counsel," DRPA spokesman Ed Kasuba said.

"I would hope the right would be restored right away," said Samuel Spear, attorney for Local 542 of the operating engineers, which represents about 200 toll collectors, maintenance workers, police dispatchers, truck drivers, and other employees.

"At this point, our feeling is, the commissioners don't need to vote on this. They just have to obey the order," Spear said.

Christie had made eliminating the freebies part of a package of changes he demanded at the DRPA. He also requested elimination of free rides at other agencies, including the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, which operates the turnpike and the Garden State Parkway; the South Jersey Transportation Authority, which operates the Atlantic City Expressway; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates six bridges and tunnels, PATH trains, and other facilities; the Delaware River and Bay Authority, which operates the Delaware Memorial Bridge and the Cape May-Lewes Ferry; and the Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission, which operates the I-78 toll bridge across the Delaware.

At many of those agencies, as at the DRPA, free passage for union workers is part of labor agreements, and workers have contested the decisions to take away their free rides.

"I don't think [Christie] took into account the bargaining agreements, and I don't think he cared," said Willig, Williams and Davidson attorney for Teamsters Local 676, which represents about 160 PATCO train operators and mechanics. "In my view, it was just posturing by Christie."

The Governor's Office declined to comment on the arbitrator's decision, "pending our office's review," Christie spokesman Kevin Roberts said.

Until the dispute over perks erupted in July, the DRPA's policy was to allow all employees free passage to and from work and to allow most of them 100 additional rides a year for personal use.

DRPA employees hired before Jan. 1, 2007, were entitled to 100 free E-ZPass trips across DRPA bridges and 10 free rides on PATCO trains annually. Those employees also were entitled to 100 E-ZPass trips a year after retiring.

Workers hired on or after Jan. 1, 2007, got the freebies while on the payroll, but not in retirement. Those hired on or after Sept. 14, 2008 - the date of the most recent bridge toll increase - received only the free commuting trips.

The policies were similar for PATCO employees and retirees.

In August, the DRPA board, at Christie's request, rescinded free rides for employees. In September, the DRPA board, citing the contractual requirements, restored the free rides. The next day, Christie vetoed the board's action.

"Authority employees, commissioners, officers, and retirees should not receive free bridge passage or PATCO rides simply by virtue of their employment at the authority, when these perks are not available to the toll-paying public," Christie wrote in his veto letter Sept. 16. All workers and retirees "should pay for their personal, nonbusiness use of DRPA/PATCO facilities, just as the authority requires of its customers."

The elimination of the free personal rides was expected to save the DRPA from $200,000 to $250,000 a year, in addition to an undetermined amount to be saved by eliminating the commuting privileges. The exact cost the agency faces to reimburse workers for trips since August was not clear, although union officials had told workers to retain their toll receipts.

DRPA board member John "Johnny Doc" Dougherty, a Philadelphia labor leader, called the effort to take away the free rides "a dead loser."

"All we were going to do was end up paying a few lawyers some more tollpayers' money," Dougherty said. "This was a no-brainer."

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