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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

Political spectacle and the LIRR

LIRR commuters wait for their train to come

LIRR commuters wait for their train to come in at Jamaica station July 8, 2014. A strike might be imminent if the the talks between the union and LIRR administrators don't work out. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

At Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's prodding, the Long Island Rail Road labor drama this week took a brief side jaunt to Washington, D.C.

Members of New York's congressional delegation sent union and management negotiators the expected message that a solution lies not in the Congress but in themselves. (The lawmakers also got a small dose of pre-election, on-the-job exposure).

Cuomo, also facing re-election, stood to gain public leverage from this one-day theatrical exercise. He crushed any idea in the public's mind that the labor unions could work around the LIRR's parent entity, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Remember too that only weeks ago, the LIRR's coalition of employee unions scored a major win against the MTA on the federal playing field. In late May, for the second time, a mediation panel appointed by President Barack Obama called a pact with 17 percent wage hikes over six years a reasonable deal.

The panel's proposal would mean first-time health care contributions, but no pension-plan or work-rule changes. The MTA later announced it had come back with a proposal for 17 percent worth of raises, but over seven years rather than six.

For the moment, a strike as early as July 20 seems quite avoidable.

Differences between the MTA and the unions appear small in the scheme of things. Although it's always hard to tell without being in the backroom, neither side has to look like the loser coming out of this.

One of the main concerns expressed by union negotiators involves the MTA's drive to reduce the cost of its future hires. Serious as that concern may be for the unions, even one former public-sector labor official expressed doubt that it would inspire current employees to carry out an extended strike.

"It doesn't seem to me that the sides are all that far apart, and it seems guys are just standing on principle," said the labor veteran, who declined to be identified. "A strike may be a hard concept to understand for people in a household that relies on their paychecks to live week-to-week . . . if it's about people who have not been hired yet."

Still, the conflict involves money and projected costs -- which have a way of turning tricky and highly volatile.

The MTA faces perpetual financial pressure, which leads into questions of fare rates and state-aid levels. Officials have talked about needing to cut into their capital fund if forced to pay for the unions' proposal as blessed by the White House panel.

Conflicting accounts remain over how costs might compare with the labor deal the MTA most recently struck with city bus and subway workers.

Given all the public pressures for a settlement, it remains hard to see a strike as inevitable -- even after four years of tension between the opposing camps.

A bit more spectacle has yet to play out.

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