There's still a very easy way to avert a Long Island Rail Road strike and give the unions everything they want.
It's a simple plan, really. One that means Long Island would never be held hostage again.
The unions should agree as part of their collective bargain to support withdrawal from coverage by the federal Railway Labor Act, which would require an act of Congress. That would result in real long-term savings for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority while letting the workers reap every penny the unions claim they won from two federal mediation boards.
The federal act lumps Long Island's commuter railroad in with national and international private-sector freight carriers, which never made any sense, and it's the real reason Long Island faces a strike. The act allows walkouts, while New York's Taylor Law prohibits strikes by city transit workers and other uniformed public employees.
This bizarre arrangement spawned the LIRR disability pension scandal in a federal system that is susceptible to abuse. And it's the reason rail commuting costs are so high for Long Islanders.
LIRR employees are the highest-paid commuter railroad workers in the country. They make an average of $87,182 a year when overtime is included. New York City subway and bus workers earn an average of $75,372 a year, with overtime, under a recently ratified contract with an 8 percent raise over five years.
And many city track workers, for example, toil in much worse conditions -- regular shifts include nights and weekends, often in dank, hot underground tunnels. When LIRR track employees work nights or weekends, they're paid overtime or double overtime.
Unfortunately, the LIRR unions won't support getting out from under the railway act. Their international parent unions don't want that to happen. The biggest fear of the internationals, whose leaders seem to be driving the locomotive in these negotiations, is losing the higher-paid, municipal commuter unions that fund the generous pensions for their private-sector freight members.
Are there other concessions the unions can come up with to help cover some of the cost of the 17 percent pay raises over six years that they want, or the 17 percent over seven years the MTA has offered? The unions have proposed a first-ever employee contribution to health coverage. That's a significant concession. But it's one most private sector workers swallowed long ago and, alone, it just isn't enough.
Changes in costly work rules would have delivered savings. But they're off the table. Recommendations by two presidential mediation boards included no changes, and at this late date, work-rule changes would be very complicated to negotiate. The unions also have shunned any changes for future employees. Union rejection of the MTA's proposal that new employees contribute more to pensions and health coverage and take longer to reach top pay is what led to the current impasse.
So, what's left? Pensions. For example, savings could be realized by increasing employee contributions or by capping the percentage of overtime hours used to calculate pensions. That cap is in place for workers hired since 2008. It should be extended to all employees.
An offer of real savings is the only way back to the bargaining table. That's where both sides should be, working furiously to spare Long Island the pain of a strike.