The Long Island Rail Road's largest union, stuck at a contract impasse with the MTA, unanimously voted Wednesday to approve going on strike as early as next month -- potentially stranding 300,000 daily commuters.
Members of the Sheet Metal, Air and Transportation Union/United Transportation Union, which represents nearly half of LIRR laborers, voted unanimously in Massapequa to support a strike. A labor stoppage could come on March 21 unless a new agreement is reached or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority asks the White House to intervene with a second Presidential Emergency Board. The MTA rejected the first White House board's recommendations.
The agency has until March 21 to request the second board. That would put off a strike until July at the earliest. MTA officials say they have not yet decided whether to make the request.
Union officials said some 500 members from two locals cast votes, including some by fax. Two other locals with fewer members will vote Thursday.
Smaller LIRR unions have already approved similar votes to walk off the job. SMART UTU general chairman Anthony Simon said his union's vote -- the first of its kind in two decades -- was "the toughest for our members ever to make."
"This is going to affect their finances, their families, and the Long Island economy," Simon said. "But they are standing united with their union, because they have been pushed around far too long."
John Franke, a train car repairman who has worked for the LIRR for 16 years, said he did not take the vote, nor the prospect of inconveniencing commuters, lightly.
"This is the last thing we want to do," Franke of Medford said. "We are being backed into a corner."
In a statement before the vote, MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said it was "a routine procedural step in the absence of a new agreement" and the agency remains hopeful the sides can negotiate a deal.
LIRR unions have been without a contract since June 2010. The unions have balked at the MTA's demands that they accept a three-year freeze in labor costs.
Workers could get raises, but only if they were funded through other concessions, including eliminating some work rules and increasing employee contributions to health care benefits.
Without the unions' acceptance of the "three net zeros" freeze proposal, the MTA has said it would have to raise fares by as much as 12 percent next year.
In November, President Barack Obama appointed a Presidential Emergency Board to help resolve the dispute. After listening to arguments from labor and management during a weeklong Manhattan hearing, the board largely ruled in the unions' favor, saying that the MTA could afford to give workers annual raises averaging 2.83 percent over six years without having to raise fares. The unions accepted the board's nonbinding recommendations.
Tuesday, Simon's union wrote to the MTA's labor director, asking to schedule new negotiations. But an MTA spokesman said the Obama-appointed board "did not take the MTA's financial condition or its customers' sacrifices into account, and is not a template for productive negotiations."
"The president of the United States appointed a board to recommend a fair deal. They recommended a fair deal, and now [the MTA] says, 'We want to start over again,' " Simon said. "We should not be going backward."