LIRR unions call MTA's latest contract plan a 'lowball offer'

A conductor gives the signal for Long Island A conductor gives the signal for Long Island Rail Road train heading east to leave the Freeport station on March 11, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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Long Island Rail Road union leaders yesterday called the MTA's latest contract proposal an unreasonable "lowball offer" that is certain to provoke a strike.

The union's statement came just hours after Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials had portrayed LIRR union workers as "the highest-paid commuter railroad employees" holding riders hostage unless they "get everything they want." The MTA said Friday its latest proposal includes "significant wage increases" for LIRR workers.

"I feel like saying . . . 'Behave,' " said Gene Russianoff, spokesman for the Straphangers Campaign, a commuter watchdog group. "Both management and labor want to put their best case out there . . . It's for the media's and the public's benefit . . . It's part of the game."

After remaining largely silent for two weeks, the heads of five LIRR unions Friday disclosed what they say are several inequities between the MTA's latest offer to them and a deal reached last week with the Transport Workers Union, which represents 34,000 bus and subway workers.

Although the MTA has said its latest proposal to LIRR laborers was modeled after the TWU deal, the railroad unions said Friday the offer on the table is worth just 75 percent of what transit workers would get. It's also far below the recommendation of a White House-appointed mediation board that in December called for 17 percent raises over six years, they said.

The MTA's offer to the railroad unions is for raises of about 11 percent over six years, agency and union sources have said.

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Union officials maintain it's actually worth much less because of changes in benefits.

Those proposed changes include extensions of wage progression scales that would make newly hired LIRR employees take bigger cuts in their salaries than those at the TWU, and that increases in employee pension contributions would have LIRR workers, on average, paying 2 1/2 times as much as those in the TWU, the officials said.

Anthony Simon, lead LIRR union negotiator and general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union/United Transportation Union, said the MTA's proposal would "go down in flames" if put up for a vote.

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"That's not the union saying, 'We want to strike' or 'We're looking to strike,' " Simon said. "What we are saying, loud and clear, is that the MTA's lowball offer . . . will definitely provoke a strike if it was submitted to our membership for ratification."

MTA officials would not address specific terms of their offer, or how it differs from the tentative TWU deal.

"Facts are facts, and the MTA has proposed significant wage increases for LIRR employees," the MTA said in a statement Friday. "The Presidential Emergency Board has urged both parties to continue negotiating and the parties intend to do so."

Despite the renewed hostility, MTA management and LIRR labor leaders have agreed to meet again. If no deal is reached by July 19, 5,800 LIRR union workers could legally walk off their jobs -- effectively shutting down the nation's largest commuter railroad and stranding 300,000 daily riders.

"Just the fact that the parties are talking is always beneficial," MTA board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, said Friday. "At least they're still talking, and at least it's only April 25th."

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