LIRR unions must budge to help fund raises

BETHPAGE, NY - Riders get ready to board BETHPAGE, NY - Riders get ready to board a Long Island Rail Road train. Photo Credit: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

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With a deadline for a Long Island Rail Road strike just days away, New Yorkers should brace themselves for roads, subways and buses that are even more impossibly packed than usual.

Sunday is the earliest a strike might start -- and the very idea of a work stoppage on a rail system that provides more than 300,000 rides a day is outrageous.

Start with the fact that average pay for LIRR workers is $87,182 a year (overtime included) while workers also get free health care -- making them the most generously paid workforce of any commuter railroad in the nation.

New York City's bus and subway workers -- who earn an average of $75,372 a year under a new contract -- cannot match the compensation of LIRR employees.

And many city track workers, for example, toil in much worse conditions -- regular shifts include nights and weekends, often in dank, hot underground tunnels. When LIRR track employees work nights or weekends, they're paid overtime or double overtime.

And come Monday -- unless sanity enjoys an outbreak -- city bus and subway straphangers will have to squeeze a little bit tighter into their rolling sardine cans to accommodate Long Islanders.

Bear in mind, unlike the MTA's other unions, LIRR workers fall under the federal Railway Labor Act. They are not covered by the state's Taylor law and can strike. A work stoppage could cost the five boroughs -- and Long Island -- $50 million a day in lost economic activity.

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Are there concessions the unions can come up with to help cover some of the cost of the 17 percent in pay raises over seven years the MTA has offered? The unions have proposed a first-ever employee contribution to health coverage. That's a significant concession, but it's not enough.

Changes in costly work rules would deliver savings. But they're off the table. Savings could be realized by increasing employee pension contributions or by expanding a cap on a percentage of overtime hours used to calculate pensions for people hired since 2008. An offer of real savings is the only way back to the bargaining table. That's where both sides need to be to spare all of us the pain of a strike.

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