For the LIRR unions, it is about the future.

With both the MTA and the unions agreeing to raises totaling 17 percent and first-time employee health care contributions, the key point of contention in the impasse involves the fate of the so-called "unborn" -- LIRR workers hired after a new contract is ratified.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority wants new workers to contribute to their health care costs at twice the rate of current workers, pay 4 percent of pension costs permanently instead of just for their first 10 years as most current employees do, and take twice as long to achieve top pay -- up to 12 years in some cases.

But Arthur Maratea, national vice president of the Transportation Communications Union, said he's received more than 200 emails from members urging their leadership, "Do not give up the new hires."

"It's going to split the workforce," said Maratea, who recalled joining the LIRR in 1988 -- just after the agency had shut down a pension system for workers hired before then. The MTA reinstated the pension about 10 years ago.

"Our members have told us, and that's who pays our salaries and that's who we represent . . . they're not going to give up the new guys," he said.

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More than just creating rifts among colleagues, union officials said compromising the wages and benefits of future job holders would, in turn, compromise the quality of candidates applying for those jobs.

"Do you want to have somebody throw a switch and have . . . a head-on collision because you decided you were going to lower the qualifications?" said Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union. "You don't want to start reaching for the bottom for a job this dangerous."

Accepting concessions for future workers, MTA officials have said, is a common bargaining practice and would help the agency afford the deal over the long run. MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast last week disputed the unions' contention that the agency is "creating two classes of employees."

"At the end of the day, they will have the same pension benefits . . . They will have the same health care benefits . . . But we're asking [new] employees to pay more," Prendergast said. "I pay more than my parents did for health care."

Simon signaled that the union was willing to bend a little when it came to future workers, without sacrificing the quality of LIRR jobs or the workers who fill them. "You can maintain the future of new employees if you go by what we know can be done," he said.

Because, by the MTA's admission, both sides' proposals would cost the agency about $40 million annually in the first few years of the contract, Simon said the MTA should accept the unions' demands and "live to fight another day." Any agreement would be retroactive to 2010, when workers' last contract lapsed, so the unions and the MTA could be back at the table in just 18 months. Complicating talks, union leaders say, is how the MTA has treated the federally mandated contract resolution process. The agency has rejected the recommendations of two Presidential Emergency Boards.

The MTA has said the two rulings were no more than nonbinding recommendations, but Maratea pointed out that even when the MTA lost a binding arbitration ruling against subway workers in 2009, it refused to pay and took the union to court, where it lost again.

"This is our industry. Those are the rules. The MTA just does not want to play by the rules," Maratea said. "The process must be preserved."

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MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg called the union's sentiments "the height of hypocrisy" and noted that when a Presidential Emergency Board in 1994 ruled in management's favor, the unions "told the president to stay out of it."