LIRR unions, MTA enter decisive week in contract impasse

Carpooling incentives and shuttle bus service from six Carpooling incentives and shuttle bus service from six of the LIRR's 122 stations highlight the MTA's Long Island Rail Road preliminary strike contingency plan, which elected officials and transit advocates say doesn't go nearly far enough to accommodate 300,000 displaced commuters. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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MTA management and Long Island Rail Road union leaders say they expect this to be a pivotal week in their four-year-long contract dispute, with several key developments affecting the likelihood of an LIRR strike this summer.

The Transport Workers Union, representing 34,000 bus and subway workers, will announce Monday the results of a ratification vote on a new contract that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has said should set a pattern for all its other unions, including those at the LIRR. If ratified by union members, the MTA Board will vote on the deal Wednesday.

Tuesday, a White House-appointed board of mediators will issue its nonbinding recommendations for a settlement to the LIRR contract impasse. The report is the last procedural step before 5,800 LIRR workers can legally go on strike on July 20.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg called it a "big week" for labor relations. He said the MTA "will immediately seek to have more negotiations with the LIRR unions," as soon as the Presidential Emergency Board issues its report, regardless of which side it favors.

"We want to keep talking," Lisberg said. "There is no need for this dispute to end up leading to disruptions for our customers."

The presidential board is expected to pick between the best offers made by each side. The unions have proposed both sides accept the terms of a deal recommended last year by an earlier presidential board, which called for raises totaling 17 percent over six years.

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The MTA wants the union to accept a six-year contract modeled after that being considered by the TWU. It calls for raises totaling 11 percent.

If the TWU votes down its contract and a presidential board, for the second time, rules in favor of the LIRR unions, it could send a strong message that the MTA's proposed contract is unreasonable and force the agency to come to the table with a better offer, union sources said.

However, if the subway and bus workers ratify their contract, and the presidential board rules that railroad employees should accept a similar deal, LIRR unions would lose leverage and be more likely to strike, the sources said.

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"That's the last thing anybody wants," an LIRR union source who spoke under the condition of anonymity said. "There's still always time to negotiate."

Meanwhile, the MTA continues its preparations for a possible work stoppage. The agency last week began running ads seeking private bus operators to transport LIRR commuters in the event of a strike.

The MTA and the railroad unions quietly held their latest round of negotiations earlier this month, but made little progress, sources said.

In a statement, Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union/United Transportation Union, said, "Both sides remain open for further discussions."

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