With no talks in sight, MTA and LIRR unions take messages to public

Strike captains met at IBEW Local 589 headquarters Strike captains met at IBEW Local 589 headquarters in Patchogue on Tuesday, July 15, 2014, to discuss strategy and pick up signs that would be used in the event of a strike against the Long Island Rail Road. The union represents electricians at the LIRR. Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

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Long Island Rail Road union leaders and the head of the MTA delivered dueling messages Tuesday to the public and railway workers.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast released an open letter to LIRR riders assuring them his agency "remains committed to settling this matter quickly."

Lead union negotiator Anthony Simon visited union offices throughout Long Island to coordinate Sunday's possible 12:01 a.m. work stoppage. The "MTA cannot settle quickly if they do not wake up," he said.

Among other key developments:

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said a strike would be "a real pain, maybe, but not a disaster."

In contrast, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli estimated an LIRR strike could cost the state $50 million a day in economic losses.

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Members of Long Island's congressional delegation urged both sides to resume contract negotiations

Prendergast's agency met with LIRR unions Monday in an abbreviated negotiation session, but rejected the unions' counteroffer without presenting a counter of its own. In his letter Tuesday, he wrote that an agreement with the unions would have to be "affordable not just today, but also into the future" without putting pressure on the MTA to raise fares or scale back capital investments.

"A strike would have a devastating impact," Prendergast wrote. "It's time to have productive negotiations to resolve our differences and return to what we all do best together -- serving our LIRR customers."

Asked if he would intervene in negotiations to avert a walkout by 5,400 LIRR workers, Cuomo said: "Well, let's see how it goes."

The governor downplayed the potential impact of a shutdown of the nation's busiest commuter railroad.

"Look we've had strikes before, right? And we've survived. And we've had disasters. And we know what that's like. Hurricane Sandy was a disaster and we've gone through other disasters," Cuomo said Tuesday at an event upstate. "This is not a disaster."

In his letter, Prendergast included details of the MTA's current proposal.

The plan calls for 17 percent raises for current workers over seven years and asks health care contributions of 2 percent of weekly wages. To help fund the raises, the MTA wants future workers to pay twice as much in health care costs, take twice as long to achieve top pay, and contribute to pensions permanently, instead of for 10 years, as most now do.

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As part of its campaign, the MTA will also begin running print and radio ads Wednesday, detailing its offer and asking, "When is enough enough?"

The unions, following the recommendations of two federal mediation boards, want the 17 percent raises over six years, and, according to the MTA, have proposed much smaller concessions for future workers that amount to 0.15 percent savings from their previous offer.

"They again showed how quickly they want a strike by coming in with nothing yesterday," said Simon, who plans to address union members in a closed-door meeting Wednesday. "Nobody feels good about a strike, but at the same time they know I am doing the right thing by our members."

Members of Long Island's congressional delegation said Tuesday they were "extremely disappointed" that the MTA walked away from the bargaining table.

"Both sides need to be at the negotiating table nonstop to work out an agreement that keeps the transit workforce on the job and keeps service running for our constituents," Reps. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), Peter King (R-Seaford), and Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said in a joint statement. "Both sides need to do their part to keep negotiations moving forward rather than settling in for a stalemate. A compromise must be reached."

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Meanwhile, Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, a watchdog group, reached out to Prendergast and Simon Tuesday to "relay, personally, riders' concerns if, indeed, the strike goes forward."

Epstein urged Prendergast to step up communications to riders about the agency's plans, including putting up posters at stations. He also received assurance from Simon that unions would not take actions that would impact riders before Sunday.

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