Presidential panel convenes to resolve LIRR-union impasse

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A special board appointed by President Barack Obama to help resolve a 31/2-year-long contract dispute between the Long Island Rail Road and most of its union workers convened in Manhattan Monday for five days of hearings.

The three-member Presidential Emergency Board heard statements from representatives of eight LIRR unions representing about 5,600 employees, and from railroad management.

About 50 labor officials and a dozen management representatives, including LIRR president Helena Williams, squared off in a New York Hilton Midtown meeting room.

"We're looking to get a fair deal for our membership and we have a great case to present. We're going to leave it in the board's hands," said Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union, the railroad's largest labor organization. "Hopefully we can come up with a resolution that everyone could live with and we could avert any inconvenience to the riding public."

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That inconvenience, the union has said, would be a strike as early as July, potentially stranding 300,000 daily LIRR commuters.

LIRR workers have been without a contract since June 2010. A key sticking point is Metropolitan Transportation Authority management's insistence that all unions agree to a three-year freeze on labor costs. Workers could get raises, but only if they were paid for through other concessions, such as giving up lucrative work rules.

LIRR spokesman Salvatore Arena called the opening of hearings "an important step" toward " a negotiated settlement."

The board will hear both sides until Friday, then provide to Obama a nonbinding recommendation for a deal.

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