Cuomo could be key to preventing LIRR strike, officials say

Long Island Rail Road union workers and supporters

Long Island Rail Road union workers and supporters call on the MTA to accept their demands for a new 6-year-contract during a rally at the Massapequa LIRR station on Saturday, June 21, 2014. (Credit: Barry Sloan)

ALBANY -- As the labor dispute at the Long Island Rail Road heads toward its final innings, some officials are beginning to look to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, whom they see as the Mariano Rivera of political closers.

"His track record on these matters is very good," said Lee Miringoff, a political science professor and director of the Marist College poll. "He seems to know where his goals are and know where the votes are to get an agreement."

Said Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56: "We'd love to see him come in."


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The LIRR's five unions and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state entity whose chairman Cuomo appointed, are quickly approaching a July 20 strike deadline. But even as federal mediators get involved, many say the best hopes of avoiding a strike increasingly involve the governor.

Last week, seven Long Island state senators became the first to call on Cuomo to intervene and mediate a settlement. "Long Island needs you," the lawmakers said in a letter to the governor.

The stakes are high for Cuomo.

He faces re-election in November and Long Island is expected to be a key battleground. With suburban votes the key to a big winning margin that could bolster Cuomo's profile as a potential presidential candidate, he is expected to work hard to score points on Long Island against Republican nominee Rob Astorino, the Westchester County executive.

But it's a fine line. If Cuomo directly involves himself in the LIRR dispute and fails, he could be blamed for the strike, as past governors and mayors have. He also can't afford to alienate unions after making a pact with the labor-backed Working Families Party for its important endorsement in May.

Cuomo, who declined to comment for this story, has been ambiguous about his intentions, saying only that the issue is critical and both sides need to be responsible.

"It is easy to threaten a strike and obviously a strike on Long Island would be very damaging to Long Islanders," Cuomo told reporters last week. During the last major LIRR strike in 1994, Cuomo was a top adviser to his father, Gov. Mario Cuomo, who ended the walkout by forcing the MTA to capitulate to the unions.

MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast has said he believes the unions will employ "an extremely risky strategy" with the hope Congress will step in after one or two days and impose the contract they want.

Union officials would not confirm or deny if what Prendergast said is the unions' strategy.

LI economy's 'lifeline'

"The Long Island Rail Road is the lifeline of the Long Island economy and even to have it not operating for one day would be a disaster," said Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, the region's largest business group.

Cuomo has intervened in transportation negotiations before.

In April, he stepped into a 2-year-old contract dispute between the MTA and New York City transit workers, and led both sides to an agreement on a five-year contract. Transit Workers Union president John Samuelsen at the time cited Cuomo's "leadership in helping bridge the divide."

In September 2012, Cuomo led the Communications Workers of America to an agreement with Verizon Communications to help settle a contract that ended a 13-month stalemate. Chris Shelton, vice president for CWA District One, said then that Cuomo "intervened on several occasions to break logjams."

In July 2012, Cuomo helped end a nearly four-week lockout of 8,000 Utility Workers Union of America employees at Con Edison.

"The governor is quite astute . . . and it's usually the last stage," said industrial relations Professor Gary N. Chaison of Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. "It quite often works because the parties are put in the room and it's marathon bargaining."

Finding the middle ground

A governor also brings to the table the ability to make legislative deals that can change the dynamics of a labor conflict.

In December 2011, Cuomo ended a dispute over how to expand taxi service in upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs by authorizing more taxi medallions to be issued. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and cab companies hailed the deal.

"He has the ability to use the pressure of keeping everyone in a room," Chaison said of Cuomo. "He's the guy who can find the middle ground."

Chaison noted that, politically, Cuomo may find the challenge irresistible: "Part of this is legacy building."

"A lot of it at this stage is involved in face saving" for union and LIRR officials, Chaison said of the LIRR dispute. "If the governor can say, 'Here's my recommendation and you can say I recommend it,' then that may allow the parties to save face."

"There is some potential for a downside," Miringoff said. "But he [Cuomo] seems to swoop down and feel the upside will be the side that emerges in the end."

The risk of Cuomo's involvement is in committing to be involved and then having it fall apart, Miringoff said. "The upside is he steps in and resolves things at the moment of reckoning and builds the admiration of people who want to get to work in the morning," Miringoff said. "He's very strong on these matters and knowing the trade-offs, and getting people to move in a direction that is sometimes surprising."

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