LIRR strike looms as MTA, unions continue impasse

LIRR customers board a train at Penn Station LIRR customers board a train at Penn Station on Dec. 20, 2013.

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Two weeks after federal mediators issued their final report on the Long Island Rail Road contract dispute -- and just six weeks before a possible strike -- negotiators from the MTA and the LIRR's unions have yet to sit down and talk, and have no plans to do so, officials from both camps said.

Instead, the two sides' only official communication has been over an offer by the unions to extend a July strike deadline -- a plan that could come off the table as the unions continue preparations to walk off the job.

"When we get closer to that deadline, the unions are going to be less inclined to give an extension . . . because we would have dedicated a lot of resources " Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, said. "We're going to reach the point of no return."

Union officials said they have already applied for picketing permits in some Long Island municipalities, printed signs and T-shirts, and notified police in Suffolk, Nassau, Jamaica, Brooklyn and Manhattan to have crowd-control units in place July 20 for expected picketers.

The current stalemate comes after both sides said they intended to return to the bargaining table immediately after a Presidential Emergency Board on May 20 issued its nonbinding recommendation to resolve the four-year-long contract dispute. The three-member board supported an earlier presidential board's call for a six-year contract with 17 percent raises for LIRR laborers, but no changes to pensions or work rules.

The MTA has sought a slimmer contract with 11 percent raises, changes to pensions and extension of wage-progression schedules. The MTA has said it is a "fair and reasonable" offer to the affected laborers, who on average made $87,000 in 2012.

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With a July 19 deadline for a deal looming, the unions late last month offered to defer a possible strike until after Labor Day. Although an MTA source originally said the agency was open to the idea, it later told the unions it would "defer" a decision on the offer.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said, "This is the time that both sides should be sitting down to negotiate a solution to the dispute that would not inconvenience our customers."

Both sides have suggested the other is to blame for the lull in negotiations. The MTA has said the unions' insistence that talks focus on how to implement the boards' recommendations is limiting. The unions say the MTA's dismissal of the two independent boards' findings is unreasonable.

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"These are two distinguished boards that found the same thing. I think the MTA has to start to realize that they need an end game," said Anthony Simon, lead railroad union negotiator and head of the largest coalition of LIRR laborers.

Gregory DeFreitas, a professor of economics at Hofstra University specializing in labor issues, said after failing to make its case before two federal mediation boards, the MTA should "stop the stalling" and come to the table with a fair contract.

"Long Island's economic recovery is still far too fragile to bear the sizable costs of an LIRR shutdown, whether this summer or fall," he said. "Continued uncertainty over the fate of 300,000-plus daily commuters is clearly bad for both businesses and households."

Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation, a New York University think tank, said that even with the stalled progress, a strike is "hard to imagine," because it is a gubernatorial election year and because he thinks the riding public will have little sympathy for LIRR union workers amid accusations of widespread disability pension fraud by railroad retirees.

"There's always going to be intense negotiations and bargaining. The question is whether the people have an apetite for a strike at this moment," Moss said. "The average commuter has one question: 'Will the train get me to work on time?' "

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