LIRR strike averted as tentative deal reached to end tense 4-year contract fight

The MTA and the unions representing 5,400 Long Island Rail Road workers, assisted by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, reached a tentative deal on July 17, 2014 to avert a crippling LIRR strike that would have begun Sunday. (Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware)

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Long Island Rail Road union leaders and MTA negotiators, prodded by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, reached a tentative deal Thursday in the four-year-long contract battle that averts a strike and for the first time requires all workers to pay for health care.

Reached after a night of informal talks, the proposed pact keeps 5,400 railway workers from walking off the job at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. It also gives current LIRR workers, who now make an average $87,000 a year, 17 percent raises over 6 1/2 years -- a middle ground between the seven years sought by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the six years sought by the eight unions.

"Compromise by definition means neither side gets everything that they wanted to get," Cuomo said at a news conference at his Manhattan offices, where the pact was signed by MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast and lead LIRR union negotiator Anthony Simon. "But it means we reached an agreement and we can move forward."

Members will vote to ratify the tentative contract by Aug. 15, and the MTA board will vote on it in September, Simon said.

Cuomo and officials from the MTA and the unions said concessions made by the unions involving future workers made the agreement affordable to the MTA.

In a letter to members, Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, said future hires will pay into their pensions for 15 years instead of the current 10 (the MTA previously wanted to have them pay permanently), and take an extra two years to reach top pay (the MTA previously wanted to double so-called wage progression schedules).

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Paying for health care

All workers will make first-ever health care contributions of 2 percent of weekly wages. (The MTA previously sought to have new workers pay twice that rate. The 2 percent rate is also smaller than the 2.25 percent recommended by the presidential contract mediation boards.) And unlike the boards' proposal, the contributions will not be retroactive to when the unions' last contract lapsed in 2010.

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Prendergast has said giving workers the terms of the presidential boards' recommendations would cost the agency about $40 million annually, but that the concessions from future workers would help make the deal more affordable in the long term and relieve pressure on the agency to increase fares. The MTA has said it plans to raise fares 4 percent in 2015 and 2017.

Although Simon previously said changing wage and benefit structures for future workers could compromise the quality of employees attracted by the LIRR, he said Thursday that his concerns had to do with the "magnitude" of the MTA's proposed concessions. "We are very comfortable that our members will support it," he said.

While Cuomo portrayed the agreement as a happy medium for both sides, it was based on the recommendations of two White House-appointed mediation boards that ruled largely on the side of labor.

The MTA has said that under the terms included in the plan, current LIRR employees stand to make more money over the life of the contract than they did under the plan recommended by the presidential boards.

"We cared about the riding public. We cared about the financial stability of the railroad, as well as our members and their financial stability," said Simon, general chairman of the LIRR's largest labor organization, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, surrounded by other labor leaders at Cuomo's office.

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Railway law expert Frank Wilner, a former White House-appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board and retired United Transportation Union spokesman, called the agreement a "significant victory" for the unions, brought about by the MTA holding its stance in negotiations for too long.

For about three years, the MTA -- following a pattern that Cuomo's administration sought from unions throughout the state -- demanded that LIRR workers accept a five-year pact with three years of wage freezes and several other concessions. The MTA's most recent proposal, to give current workers the raises recommended by the two presidential boards but seek concessions from future workers came about three weeks ago.

"The MTA could have come into these talks with a more realistic position, and they may have done better . . . It's just an amateurish job from the beginning by the MTA," said Wilner, who expected the agreement would be an easy sell to the eight affected LIRR unions' members. "It's always easy for the unions to compromise on issues affecting future workers, because those workers aren't hired, aren't paying dues and aren't voting."

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'Fair and reasonable'

"The agreement that we reached today provides a fair and reasonable contract," said Prendergast, who in recent weeks repeatedly referred to the LIRR's labor force as the highest-paid commuter railroad employees in the country. "Wages that our employees deserve . . . and in a way that protects the commuter, as well as the long-term fiscal stability of the MTA."

LIRR riders who feared a shutdown of the railroad exhaled upon news of Thursday's deal. Unions, the MTA, and elected officials warned that the LIRR's first strike in two decades would have been devastating -- forcing scores of riders into traffic jams and non-air-conditioned school buses supplied by the MTA to help get some of its 145,000 riders to work.

The state comptroller's office estimated Wednesday that a work stoppage could cost New York $50 million a day in lost economic activity and be insurmountable to some Long Island businesses relying on summer tourism.

"All riders feel relief at the announcement of this settlement," LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said in a statement. "We . . . appreciate the role of the Governor in reaching this agreement and helping the parties work it out so that the riders can get to work on Monday."

Members of Long Island's congressional delegation also thanked Cuomo for bridging what union and MTA officials said was a "gulf" between the two sides earlier this week. Before entering negotiations Wednesday night, Cuomo suggested he had no role in the federally regulated railroad collective bargaining process.

"When negotiations collapsed, and both sides turned to Washington, we made it clear that the ultimate solution rested at the bargaining table," Reps. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), Peter King (R-Seaford) and Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said in a joint statement.

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