Strike-fearing Long Island Rail Road commuters are not out of hot water just yet.
Although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority reached an agreement with most LIRR unions to avert a work stoppage last month, some 400 railroad engineers are still without a new contract -- and could walk off their jobs as soon as next year if a settlement is not reached.
Like other LIRR unions, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers Local 269's last contract came up for renewal about four years ago. But the union's leadership chose to negotiate separately from most other labor organizations, including the LIRR's largest, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union.
The engineers union is about a year behind the other unions in the federally regulated collective bargaining process. The National Mediation Board is reviewing the contract dispute and will meet with the union and MTA negotiators later this month, sources said.
Union general chairman Michael Quinn said he could not comment during negotiations. MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan also declined to comment, other than to confirm the case is in mediation.
Without progress in negotiations, the mediation board could release the union from mediation -- as it did with the eight other LIRR unions last October -- clearing a path for engineers to legally walk off the job nine months later.
Support found lacking
But railroad union sources said they don't expect it to come to that.
"It's going to be very difficult," said a union source involved in the recent MTA contract settlement. "They're not going to get too much support."
After a prolonged contract fight that twice necessitated intervention from President Barack Obama, the eight unions representing more than 5,000 LIRR workers on July 17 reached a tentative deal with the MTA that assured workers raises of 17 percent over 6 1/2 years.
Under the agreement, all employees will pay first-time health care contributions of 2 percent of weekly wages, and new employees would pay into their pensions for 15 years instead of 10.
MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said he expects other railroad unions will be offered a similar deal.
"Generally the pattern that we have established now with the Long Island Rail Road coalition of eight unions would be the basics," Prendergast said.
Union sources said that while the MTA may offer the engineers the value of the deal made with other groups, it could still play hardball on some details.
For example, one of the biggest concessions by the other unions calls for new workers to add two years to their wage progression schedules -- meaning a conductor who previously took five years to make top pay will now have to work for seven to reach that level.
However, engineers don't have wage progression rules and earn top pay as soon as they complete their training and get behind the controls of a locomotive.
"They have to come up with something in lieu of that," the union source said.
Work rules pay extra
The differences between the engineers and the other LIRR unions could open the door for the MTA to target some of the engineers' work rules, which pay them extra wages for some assignments, sources said.
"I have a feeling they'll get the value of our deal, but in a very different way. . . . How they get to that value may be very painful for them," another LIRR union source involved in the recent negotiations said. "Those work rules that they have are sacred to them."
But, the engineers could have a harder time than other LIRR unions in striking. Railway law expert Frank Wilner said the National Mediation Board may not be inclined to release the engineers from mediation and risk a crippling LIRR strike over the contracts of 400 workers.
"The NMB can keep them [in mediation] until the 22nd century if they want to," said Wilner, a former White House-appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board and a retired United Transportation Union spokesman.
Other unions resentful
The engineers union also won't have the same strength in numbers as the other LIRR unions had, with some leaders of other unions expressing resentment that the engineers stand to reap the rewards of a fight they stayed out of.
"A lot of people are not happy with the BLET [engineers union] for not getting involved in the process and not stepping up to the plate," the source said.
If the engineers cannot get legal clearance for a work stoppage, more drastic alternatives could remain.
Months after the last legal LIRR walkout in 1994, locomotive engineers under different leadership staged a one-day "wildcat" strike in May of 1995 that stranded commuters with little notice and no backup plan.
The illegal job action, which saw hundreds of train operators simultaneously call in sick, resulted in a court levying a five-year ban on wildcat strikes, under the threat of a $2 million fine for the union.
LIRR ENGINEER WORK RULES
Description: An engineer operates both diesel and electric equipment during a single tour of duty.
Example: An engineer begins the day operating a diesel locomotive, but it malfunctions. The nearest equipment available to complete the trip is a “dual mode” diesel/electric locomotive. The engineer is assigned to switch trains.
Second class of service
Description: A train crew crosses “classes of service” during a single tour of duty. Classes of service include passenger, freight, yard and hostler. (Hostlers move trains from one track to another within a rail yard.)
Example: A train scheduled to provide eastbound rush-hour service breaks down on its way to Penn Station. To provide that scheduled eastbound train, the LIRR calls on a crew working in a yard to operate a passenger train.
Outside of assignment
Description: An engineer operates a train other than the one originally assigned during a tour of duty.
Example: An engineer is driving a westbound train into Penn Station, where he or she is assigned to change to another train and go to Babylon. But if that engineer’s train is late arriving at Penn, the LIRR sends out the assigned Babylon train with another crew, and assigns the engineer to a different train upon his or her arrival.
Automatic speed control test
Description: An engineer performs an automatic speed control test on a train to which he or she is not assigned. This work-rule penalty also is incurred when an engineer operating a train in one direction performs a speed control test on the end of the train that faces the other direction.
Example: Because a train’s test failure means pulling it from service, the LIRR sometimes assigns engineers to do the tests in yards, rather than having engineers perform them while traveling through the system, where a failure could cause a service disruption.