The LIRR unions' chief negotiator says he wants to make a deal with the MTA that would delay a possible July strike until after Labor Day -- sparing Long Island's summer tourism business and buying more time to negotiate a contract settlement.
Although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said it has yet to receive a formal proposal, an MTA source who spoke on condition of anonymity said earlier this week the agency would be interested in an agreement to stave off a potential walkout by Long Island Rail Road workers in about seven weeks that could strand 300,000 daily riders.
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union/United Transportation Union that is at an impasse with the MTA, offered Tuesday to enter into a pact with the agency to extend by 60 days, or until mid-September, the federally regulated countdown clock toward a possible LIRR strike.
Under the proposal, some 6,000 LIRR workers could not walk off their jobs until Sept. 17, instead of July 19, the current contract deadline.
"Our members care about Long Island and its economy," said Simon, adding that a strike could harm summer tourism-based businesses still recovering from superstorm Sandy. "All we would need is the MTA to mutually agree on the extension."
All eight LIRR unions involved in the contract dispute would also have to agree. Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, whose union is not represented by Simon, said he would support the extension to "spare the Island undue strain to its economy."
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said neither Simon nor any union official has reached out to the agency about a 60-day extension of the strike deadline.
Lisberg confirmed that a summer strike could impact Long Island's economy because of the LIRR's role in bringing consumers to the Hamptons, Long Beach and other summer tourism destinations.
"The LIRR is vital to Long Island's summer business," said Lisberg, noting the popularity of the LIRR's Friday afternoon "Cannonball" express train to Montauk and its Long Beach getaway packages. "[This] is why the MTA believes these disputes are best resolved at the bargaining table."
Four years after their last contract lapsed, the MTA and the eight unions representing most of the LIRR's workforce remain far apart on the terms of a new six-year deal.
The MTA wants LIRR workers to accept a contract that it says is the same as that recently approved by the Transport Workers Union Local 100, representing more than 34,000 city bus and subway workers. It calls for raises totaling 11 percent, as well as changes to pensions and extending wage-progression schedules.
The unions want the LIRR to abide by the recommendations of two federal mediation boards that called for 17 percent raises and no changes to pensions, work rules or wage-progression schedules.
Although Long Island's tourism business might benefit from the proposed extension, a September strike would likely affect more typical LIRR commuters, because ridership typically dips in the summer, according to MTA board member Mitchell Pally.
A September strike would also come just seven weeks before the gubernatorial election, Pally, of Stony Brook, noted.
"I have no doubt that there are a lot of things at play here," said Pally, adding that, regardless of the unions' motivation, he would support an extension. "It's always a good idea to buy more time to allow the parties to continue to talk."
Simon said the unions' only motivation is to "do the right thing for the people and the small businesses" of Long Island.
Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, said while there may be fewer typical railroad commuters in the summer, trains are still packed with riders who would be devastated by a strike.
The council has called for a contract that would fairly compensate workers while not raising fares.
"Anybody who gets on a train, we feel we're speaking for them," Epstein said. "Whether it's July, August or September, people still have to go to work."
TIMELINE OF TALKS
October 2013: The National Mediation Board releases LIRR unions from arbitration.
December 2013: A Presidential Emergency Board hears arguments from unions and MTA management. It later sides with the unions, calling for 17 percent raises over six years and no work-rule changes. MTA rejects recommendation.
May 2014: A second Presidential Emergency Board supports the recommendations of the first board. Separately, the MTA's largest union, TWU Local 100, approves a contract that the MTA says is the basis for its current offer to LIRR workers.
July 19, 2014: The earliest LIRR unions can strike if no deal is made to extend the ongoing, federally regulated "cooling-off period."