The MTA and LIRR union leaders will return to the bargaining table next week -- less than two weeks before a threatened strike could shut down the nation's largest commuter railroad, officials said Wednesday.
The National Mediation Board, a three-member quasi-governmental agency, Wednesday scheduled the meeting between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and representatives from eight unions representing 5,400 Long Island Rail Road workers for Wednesday in a Times Square office, a board spokeswoman said.
The MTA and LIRR union leaders broke off talks after 90 minutes Friday without reaching a deal on the latest MTA offer, which the unions oppose. They said they are prepared to walk off the job July 20, stranding 180,000 daily riders.
The MTA offer would give union workers the 17 percent raises they are demanding, but spreads them over seven years, instead of the six they have sought. And LIRR workers hired after the contract is ratified would have to work twice as many years to achieve top pay; would contribute 4 percent of weekly wages to health care costs -- or twice as much as previously hired workers; and would have to permanently contribute toward their pensions; current LIRR workers only do so their first 10 years.
Eager to resume bargaining
Regarding next week's meeting, "We will be there," lead union negotiator Anthony Simon said.
"We are eager to get back to the bargaining table through the National Mediation Board . . . " MTA labor relations director Anita Miller said. "We are hoping the unions will come prepared to engage in substantive negotiations on our latest fair and generous proposal, which meets the demands of current LIRR employees by offering 17 percent raises, including $22,000 in average back pay."
The MTA wants the unions to accept its latest offer. The unions want the MTA to accept the recommendations of two Presidential Emergency Boards that called for a six-year contract with 17 percent raises, but no concessions involving future workers.
The unions have said the MTA's offer is worth less than half the value of the deal recommended by federal mediators, and that it would sacrifice the quality of future applicants for LIRR jobs.
"We . . . hope the MTA comes to their senses and considers our latest fair counterproposal," Simon said. Union officials have not specified what the counteroffer is.
The move to get both sides, which broke off talks abruptly Friday without moving much from their positions, back to the bargaining table is the latest attempt by the mediation board to resolve the four-year-long contract dispute.
Members of the mediation board, formed under the Railway Labor Act of 1926, are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. The three current members -- two Democrats and a Republican -- are veteran mediators charged with helping reach peaceful resolutions in rail and aviation labor disputes.
Frank Wilner, a former White House-appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board and retired United Transportation Union spokesman, said the National Mediation Board has the bully pulpit to "stop the macho behavior and help both sides find where they can compromise."
But, Wilner said, while the NMB could help break the logjam, an agreement is unlikely "until Cuomo gets involved."
Call for Cuomo involvement
To that end, state Sens. Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset), Jack Martins (R-Mineola) and Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) called a news conference Wednesday at the Hicksville LIRR station to urge Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to break the impasse, by either brokering a deal between the two parties or calling on President Barack Obama to get Congress involved.
"Folks, it's crunch time. We're less than three weeks away," Martins said, referencing the July 20 strike deadline. "It's time for the governor to get into this game."
Seven state senators also wrote Cuomo last week urging him to "step in, broker a settlement and help prevent a devastating summer strike." But Cuomo has been largely silent on the issue, except for saying Sunday that he, and New Yorkers, want a "fair resolution" and that a strike would be "very damaging to Long Islanders." He has not said whether he intends to get involved in contract talks.
Cuomo's office would not comment Wednesday on the senators' calls, and instead pointed to the governor's comments on the dispute Sunday.
"He has the gravitas. He has the power," Marcellino said. "And there's nobody else who has the strength and the clout to do this."