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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

State politics and a potential LIRR strike

The prospect of a Long Island Rail Road

The prospect of a Long Island Rail Road strike now hurtles into the state campaign season, with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seeking re-election, expected to engineer the labor strategy. Credit: Steve Pfost

The prospect of a Long Island Rail Road strike now hurtles into the state campaign season, with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seeking re-election, expected to engineer the strategy that might lead to a contract deal.

That means extra political pressure for a settlement as the LIRR unions' 6,000 or so members look to a July 19 contract-expiration deadline. The unions' chief negotiator recently offered to spare Long Island the threat of lost summer business by extending the settle-or-strike deadline until after Labor Day -- which, of course, would land even closer to the fall election.

"Certainly July affects not only Long Islanders but also New York City reverse commuters going to their weekend houses," said George Arzt, a Democratic political consultant based in the city. "In September it becomes an issue because all primaries are taking place for legislative seats."

Should officials fail to avert a walkout, Arzt said, "people are going to hold their elected representatives' feet to the fire and say, 'Where were you when all this was being threatened and why did you not sit down and head it off?' "

Given Long Island voters' importance, it becomes a sure bet that Cuomo's GOP challenger Rob Astorino will assess how best to critique the outcome. In the event of a strike, and its resulting fallout, Astorino gets to call Cuomo's leadership and negotiating skill into question.

But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a state agency, must bargain in this instance under federal railway labor laws. That's why two Presidential Emergency Boards have intervened. Both panels endorsed 17 percent raises over six years -- which state negotiators have called unaffordable.

By contrast, the MTA pushes as a model a contract just negotiated with city bus and subway workers, under state labor law, that included 11 percent wage hikes and pension changes.

So Cuomo can plausibly tell taxpayers and farepayers that his MTA's proposal would be better for them if adopted.

Some observers suspect events will be scripted to feature the governor riding in at the last moment to seal a deal with the LIRR union coalition. That's based on how the drama played out last month when the MTA settled its contract with Transport Workers Union Local 100.

Strikes by public employees are barred under New York law. But federal railway law allows unionized employees to seek "self-help," or strike. One policy wonk suggested, though, that there's a flip side in the same law that could allow the MTA to change inefficient work rules if a strike commences.

Such theories and possibilities, of course, have yet to play out.

Different as circumstances are now, a chill wind runs through some older Democrats' memories from 1994, when LIRR workers struck on a Friday in June and returned to work the following Sunday. Gov. Mario M. Cuomo then oversaw a settlement while seeking re-election to a fourth term.

That November, Cuomo the elder lost Nassau and Suffolk to Republican George Pataki by a combined 115,018 votes -- and the statewide election by 173,798 votes.

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