Ciolli: Highs and lows of the LIRR contract drama


Lead Long Island Rail Road union negotiator Anthony Simon, left, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast announce a tentative deal in Manhattan averting a LIRR strike, on Thursday, July 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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Labor negotiations, especially those polished smooth through the decades of New York's tumultuous history with its transit unions, are an established performance art. Every actor gets a turn to strut his stuff, and then the whole cast takes a bow at the end.

That's just how it played in the last 24 hours of the Long Island Rail Road talks, not quite down to the wire at midnight Saturday, but close enough to get the biggest audience. The final act began when Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast left the negotiations Wednesday afternoon determined to hold the line on concessions from eight LIRR labor unions. Later that day, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stepped in to talk tough about his willingness to take a strike, while union officials led by Anthony Simon pushed back until the wee hours of the morning.

In the darkest hours just before dawn Thursday, the final act was written, with agreement on outstanding details.

A few hours later, all sides broke bread together for good luck at lunch, and then the actors took to the stage before the television cameras this afternoon.

With smiles on their faces, Predergast, Simon and Cuomo all signed a single piece of paper -- a prop with little legal significance -- and smartly closed out the final act.

In the end, the deal trimmed and nipped at contract terms recommended by two federal mediation boards. The unions, to get the terms recommended by the mediation boards, had to cough up some money to cover it. The MTA and Cuomo were insisting that it had to come from "the unborn," those workers not yet hired to work on the rails, because this was a fundamental change benefitting the LIRR over the long term.

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The union pushed backed hard, not on the dollar amounts, but on the concept of having different classes of workers. When LIRR unions talk about family, it really is the sons and daughters, nephews and nieces of the workforce who are likely to come on board soon.

But after Cuomo made it clear that he would endure a long strike and the unions calculated that a week or two without a paycheck would evaporate a lot of the gains in the new contract, those yet to be hired were indeed sacrificed.

The ritual was artfully performed and everyone left a winner.

Rita Ciolli is editor of Newsday's editorial page.

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