Brown: Technology is key in future bargaining between MTA, unions

An LIRR conductor checks out his train while

An LIRR conductor checks out his train while stopped at Jamaica station July 8, 2014. (Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.)

Technology.

That's going to change the bargaining dynamic between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its unions down the line.

And so it should.


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Because the trajectory of contractual increases and work rules -- like the ones in the preliminary agreement that avoided a strike last week -- is unsustainable.

The preliminary agreement reached between the MTA and LIRR unions slows the rate of increases for employees who are yet to be hired. It also requires, for the first time, that employees contribute to health care costs.

Both are big steps.

But together they are not likely to significantly slow the rate of increasing costs before negotiations roll around again in 2016.

What should the railroad and its unions be doing in the meantime?

How about, among other things, looking to Europe, Asia and elsewhere for the kinds of technology that will make using the LIRR more convenient for customers and more cost-effective for the MTA?

The MTA and LIRR unions may want to begin seeking common ground on changes that -- as they have in other industries -- ultimately will produce a smaller workforce.

One example:

How long into the future will railroad employees have to walk the aisles clicking holes into tickets, or examining physical monthly commuter passes?

At some point, scanners or some kind of cellphone tied to GPS could handle those tasks.

That's not to say the employees go away -- having LIRR employees on trains and in stations is a good thing.

Technology is expensive.

And it takes skill to identify, implement and -- here's the hard part -- keep it up-to-date and working.

So far, the railroad has had a mixed record on that score, according to a recent audit of security technology by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's office.

At this point, the best people to evaluate what should come next are the MTA and its unions .

But let's not be naive.

The union's job is to protect members; the MTA's job is to protect customers. That's what most of the back-and-forth in the recent contract fight was all about.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stepped in to get a deal to avoid a strike -- just as his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, did during a short strike in 1994.

Given the reality that the LIRR -- and by extension, its riders -- is beholden to two masters, New York State via the MTA and the U.S. government via the federal Railway Act, it's likely that future governors also will find it necessary to step in.

Think of a train, circling round and round a track as each side tests its leverage with the state and federal governments. That's how MTA-LIRR negotiations work.

New York State did try, more than three decades ago, to muscle the LIRR away from the federal Railway Act in an attempt to make the railroad subject to the state Taylor Law, which would have barred a strike.

But the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, neatly put the kibosh on that: "Operation of passenger railroads, no less than operation of freight railroads, has traditionally been a function of private industry, not state or local governments," he wrote.

In short, the court ruled, the feds having a say did not conflict with the state's power. Besides, that federal oversight would have come in handy had workers gone on strike: According to a Newsday report, Congress was ready to vote Monday on a measure that would have had LIRR employees return to their jobs as negotiations continued.

As DiNapoli pointed out Friday, "The LIRR, which is key to this region, and other railroads became public because private companies couldn't make them work."

If you can't change the game, then, map out some new moves. There's time to consider technology -- and a lot of other things -- before the next negotiation swings back around.