The unions representing most of the Long Island Rail Road's workforce have reached a critical impasse in contract negotiations that could lead to a strike, the LIRR's top union official said Friday.
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union, said that after three years of failed negotiations since their last contract expired, eight of the LIRR's 10 main unions were released from mediation Friday.
With that milestone reached, a 270-day "countdown clock" begins, and if an agreement is not reached during that time, LIRR workers have the right to walk off their jobs, Simon said.
"Our main concern is not to hurt the riding public or the commuters out there," said Simon, adding that he hoped the deadline in nine months would "put pressure on the railroad to come up with a fair deal that we can live with."
LIRR unions have been without a contract since June 2010. Having not reached a deal in the first 16 months, the unions and the LIRR first went to the National Mediation Board -- an independent agency that helps broker labor agreements -- in October 2011. About 97 percent of cases that go before the National Mediation Board are resolved without "interruptions to public service," the board says.
The collective unions represent more than 5,000 of the LIRR's approximately 6,000 represented workers, including its train conductors.
Simon would not disclose specific sticking points in negotiations, but said that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants unions to agree to three years of labor cost freezes. Union employees could get raises, but only if they are paid for through givebacks such as abolishing lucrative work rules. Simon said that was unacceptable to workers.
MTA officials have said holding down labor costs are critical for the agency's solvency, and that without them it would have to make the money elsewhere, including through higher fares.
Boosted by increases in subway ridership and other overperforming revenue streams, the MTA expects to close out 2013 and 2014 with small surpluses. But the MTA has warned that escalating pension and benefits costs present major risks.
The last time LIRR unions came out of the National Mediation Board without a deal in place, in 1994, it resulted in a two-day strike that left 100,000 railroad commuters scrambling to find other ways to get to work and back.
"Today's action commences the federal process for dispute resolution that covers our commuter railroads. The process includes a series of cooling-off periods and Presidential Emergency Board arbitrations. Naturally, Long Island Rail Road will request a Presidential Emergency Board," MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said.
Simon said there are no immediate plans to return to the bargaining table.