Long Island Rail Road union leaders and MTA management have accepted an invitation by the National Mediation Board to meet later this month with hopes of averting a commute-crippling strike that could come as early as next month.
The quasi-independent agency, formed under the Federal Railway Act to help resolve labor disputes, sent the letter earlier this week to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and leaders from unions representing about 5,600 of the LIRR's 6,000 workers.
In a brief notice the board told the unions and the MTA that "in the public interest" it would be holding a two-day conference Feb. 27-28 in its Washington, D.C., headquarters to discuss the contract impasse.
It would be the first time both sides have met since a panel of mediators appointed by President Barack Obama held a weeklong hearing in Manhattan in December.
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union/United Transportation Union -- the LIRR's largest labor organization -- said he will go into the conference "with a positive attitude."
"When the NMB asks us to come, we're coming," Simon said. "We're going to do what we can to have a peaceful resolution."
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said the authority also accepted the board's invitation. "This should be settled at the bargaining table," he said. "We believe it can be."
The conference would come three weeks before the railroad unions could legally walk off the job on March 21, unless a deal is reached or the MTA or Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo asks the White House to appoint a second board of mediators to recommend a fair contract. That would put off a strike at least until July.
The MTA last month rejected the nonbinding recommendations of a first Presidential Emergency Board, which ruled that the MTA could afford to give LIRR workers raises of 2.83 percent over six years. The unions, which have not had a contract since June 2010, accepted the recommendations, and say they should be the starting point for any further talks with the MTA.
The MTA has said the only way it will give raises to LIRR workers is to pay for them through "common-sense" concessions that would equal three years of wage increases.
"Hopefully, they go down there with the intention of at least having a dialogue," said Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 589. "If we go down there and they say, 'There's nothing to discuss unless we get the three net zeros,' it won't last two days."