Four days of closed-door meetings between MTA management and Long Island Rail Road union leaders ended Thursday without a pact in place, but with both sides agreeing to keep talking -- this time face to face without a mediator present.
Despite plans to continue negotiations, union officials voiced concerns about the failure to reach an accord.
"It's frustrating because we're approaching a deadline that's going to affect 300,000 commuters," said Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union / United Transportation Union, the LIRR's largest labor organization. "At this stage of the game, the MTA has come forth with an offer that would actually guarantee a strike."
After Wednesday's conclusion of hearings held by a White House-appointed mediation board, a small group of negotiators from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the LIRR unions, including Simon, met Thursday in hopes of reaching an agreement this week to head off a railroad labor strike by 5,800 workers this July.
But after about four hours of talks, during which Presidential Emergency Board 245 chairman Joshua Javits shuttled back and forth between Manhattan hotel conference rooms containing MTA and labor officials, Simon announced that a deal remained "far away."
The MTA says its offer is modeled after a tentative deal reached with the Transport Workers Union Local 100 representing more than 34,000 New York City subway and bus workers last week. It would give LIRR workers raises totaling 11 percent over six years.
"The MTA offered a substantial pay increase for LIRR workers, yet the highest-paid commuter railroad employees in the nation responded by threatening to strike if they do not get everything they demand," the agency said in a statement Thursday.
Union officials have said the offer not only falls far short of the recommendations of an earlier presidential board, which called for 17 percent raises. They also said the proposed TWU contract is worth considerably less to railroad employees than to TWU workers, because of differences in benefits between the two work forces.
Before wrapping up their talks Thursday, MTA and union officials, under the urging of Javits, agreed to meet again in the coming weeks.
"Once those dates [of the next meetings] come down, everybody will make ourselves available and we'll get in a room," Simon said. "Let's be optimistic."
The presidential board is expected to issue its nonbinding recommendation by May 20.