The MTA said Thursday if it cannot reach a deal with Long Island Rail Road unions soon, it will ask the White House to intervene, averting a strike threatening to shut down the nation's largest rail system next month.
Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast, in a letter responding to 12 congressional lawmakers from Long Island and New York City who urged him to settle the 31/2-year-long contract dispute with LIRR unions, vowed to request a second Presidential Emergency Board to review the matter. That, in effect, would ensure the 5,800 union workers could not legally walk off the job until July 20 at the earliest.
"Your interest in this issue is deeply appreciated and I assure you there will be an important role for the New York congressional delegation to play to ensure that this critical public service continues to be provided without interruption," Prendergast told lawmakers, who he said could "rest assured" the MTA would prevent a March strike.
In a statement, chief union negotiator Anthony Simon thanked the congressional delegation for yielding results.
"We hope the MTA recognizes that it was labor who stepped up to prevent a March strike with the overwhelming support from our Congress," said Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union/United Transportation Union.
The MTA has rejected the recommendations of a first board of mediators appointed by President Barack Obama, which called for raises of 2.83 percent and no changes to union work rules that pay employees extra wages for some assignments.
MTA officials have said they need workers to agree to concessions, including abolishing some work rules, or to agree to a three-year wage freeze. In their letter to Prendergast, members of Congress urged him to back off demands for "three net zeros."
The unions and the MTA are to discuss the impasse in Washington next week. Under the board's plan, Prendergast said, raises would mean steeper fare hikes, borrowing billions of dollars, cutting capital spending, or underfunding employee health care liabilities.
"Balancing the sometimes conflicting demands of those who deliver public services and those who pay for them is one of the most difficult assignments all of us in government share," Prendergast wrote.