A White House-appointed mediation panel Tuesday rejected an MTA proposal for a Long Island Rail Road union contract for the second time, calling labor leaders' offer of a 17 percent, six-year pact a "reasonable" solution.
In its nonbinding recommendation issued last evening, the three-member Presidential Emergency Board 245 called the LIRR unions' proposal for the contract and, for the first time, employee health benefit contributions "a reasonable balance addressing the priorities of both parties."
This is the second time in the past six months that a board appointed by President Barack Obama has sided with the unions in their four-year-long contract fight with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
In seeking to help avert a July strike, the board Tuesday shot down the MTA's proposal for a contract with 11 percent in wage increases, noting that the terms were never discussed with the unions before a board hearing last month and served only to "increase the differences between the parties without benefit of examination, costing analysis, or exchange of ideas and positions."
In a statement, Anthony Simon, head of the LIRR's largest labor organization, called the ruling "an indication that our organization's resolve in fighting for what we believe and what our members deserve pays off."
"We will continue to work hard to prevent any inconvenience to our riders," Simon said.
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said in a statement the agency was "disappointed" with the board's ruling, and that the union proposal endorsed by the board would significantly reduce funds available for the MTA's capital plan.
"Our proposal is a fair and reasonable way to recognize our employees' hard work and provide them with competitive wages, retroactive pay, quality health care and secure pensions," Lisberg said. "We still believe a fair, reasonable and affordable agreement can be negotiated at the bargaining table, as it was with the TWU."
The proposal selected by the board is the same as one recommended by a first presidential board in December. The MTA rejected that proposal, saying it could force the agency to raise fares or underfund other financial obligations.
The MTA has said it intended to resume negotiations with the railroad immediately after the board issued its new recommendation. Without an agreement in place, 6,000 LIRR workers could strike July 20, stranding 300,000 daily commuters.
Although two White House-appointed mediation boards have now backed the LIRR unions, the MTA gained an important bit of leverage Monday when its largest labor organization, the Transport Workers Union Local 100, representing subway workers, ratified a new contract.
The LIRR unions have said the MTA's proposed contract is worth far less to LIRR workers than to subway workers, who will see several new perks that would not benefit railroad workers, including free rides on the LIRR. Railroad workers would also see a far bigger increase in employee health benefit contributions than transit workers will under the MTA's proposed contract.
The presidential board agreed that the MTA's offer to the railroad unions "follows the form but not the substance of the deal it entered into with Local 100," and noted the costs of the two proposals to the MTA "appear to be significantly different."
The panel wrote that, despite having nearly five months to negotiate in between the two presidential board hearings, there remains "significant distance between the parties on all matters of significance."
"This Board anticipates that the parties will use this history, including this report, as a basis for reaching a voluntary agreement without resort to self-help," the board wrote, addressing the possibility of an LIRR labor strike.