An off-peak train arrives at the Port Washington Station from...

An off-peak train arrives at the Port Washington Station from Penn Station on Sept. 7, 2010. Credit: Kevin P Coughlin

Members of the Long Island congressional delegation are beginning to pressure the MTA to settle a contract dispute with Long Island Rail Road union workers and avert a strike that could cripple the nation's largest commuter rail system as soon as next month.

But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has still not said whether it intends to defuse the strike threat by requesting a second Presidential Emergency Board after earlier rejecting the recommendations of the first emergency board.

Five weeks before 6,000 LIRR workers could walk off the job for the first time in two decades, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said Long Island's congressional delegation plans to send a letter to the MTA urging the agency to either accept the recommendation of a board of mediators appointed by President Barack Obama that largely ruled in favor of the unions, which have been without a contract since June 2010, or call for a second board. That would put off a strike until July.

"You're always reluctant to get involved in somebody else's negotiations, especially when we don't have to pay the tab," said King, who defended the unions' leader and chief negotiator, Anthony Simon, as having negotiated in good faith. "There was any number of situations over the past three or four years where he could have really demagogued or raised hell if he wanted to. So for him to be carrying it this far, I think should be an indication to the MTA that this could be serious. And they should find a way to resolve it."

Other local members of Congress also are planning to sign the letter, officials and union leaders said.

King and Israel have both questioned the MTA's outright dismissal of the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board, which was created under the 88-year-old Railway Labor Act to provide an objective mediator for contract deadlocks.

Board calls for pay raises

The three-member board heard from both sides over five days of hearings in December and rejected the MTA's assertion that it could not afford to give workers raises without having to make major financial sacrifices elsewhere, including through steep fare hikes.

Israel said in a statement that, through its recommendations, the board "has already found that a contract can be negotiated without increasing fares."

The unions backed the board's recommendations, which called for raises of 2.83 percent over six years, and health care contributions growing from 1 percent in the first year to 2.25 percent in the sixth year. That's shy of the unions' demands of 3.6 percent in raises and no contribution to health care costs, but the board did not recommend any of the pension contributions or work rule concessions the MTA sought.

Those included doing away with night differential pay and double time for some assignments, moving from a seniority-based overtime system to one that spreads overtime opportunities among all workers, and other changes to sick pay and vacation pay.

The MTA wants workers to essentially pay for their own raises by giving up lucrative work rules, making sizable contributions to health care costs and agreeing to other givebacks.

The MTA has called its demands "common sense" changes, and said union workers should be required to make sacrifices in a fragile economy, just as riders have done through service cuts and fare hikes in recent years, and nonunion employees have done through a wage freeze that has lasted five years.

MTA eyes concessions

The MTA has said it would give workers raises if the concessions kept total labor costs frozen for three years. But the eight unions involved, which total about 5,600 of the LIRR's 6,000 laborers, have balked at the "three net zeros" plan and maintained that they have made big sacrifices in recent years, including through layoffs, furloughs and inadequate staffing.

They've also disputed that nonunion workers have not had any raises in five years and pointed to multiple examples of MTA managers getting salary bumps in recent years through changes in title and added responsibilities.

"The MTA has the ability to pay, and they choose to pay who they want to," said Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union/United Transportation Union -- the LIRR's largest labor organization.

The unions have said, while the MTA looks to them for givebacks, the authority also continues to overspend on infrastructure projects, like East Side Access, which is running as much $2.6 billion over budget.

"They've said they're financially broke," Simon said. "They're not financially broke anymore."

The MTA has acknowledged that its finances have improved considerably since it faced a nearly $1 billion deficit four years ago. The MTA is recording record-high ridership, projecting small surpluses through 2016, and has even reduced a planned 2015 fare hike by nearly half.

Three net zeros

MTA officials have said the authority's fragile financial plan depends greatly on all its unions accepting the three-year freeze. Without it, the MTA would either have to take about $5 billion out of its next five-year capital plan, which funds infrastructure maintenance and expansion projects, or squeeze an extra $300 million out of additional fare increases as high as 12 percent or service cuts three times the size as those made in 2010, which included the elimination of several rush hour LIRR trains and weekend service to West Hempstead and Greenport.

"That's how important it is that we achieve a fair and reasonable settlement," MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast told the state legislature last month. "It would be difficult for me to overstate the adverse repercussions -- for both our customers and our region -- if we don't achieve these three net zeros."

Union leaders have said the MTA's demands are less about cutting LIRR labor costs and more about falling in line with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's quest for three-year freezes from all unions in the state. The state's two biggest unions, the Civil Service Employees Association and Public Employees Federation, have already accepted such contracts.

Cuomo's office did not respond to a request for comment.

"They're saying, 'Don't give them anything, because if you give it to them, everybody else is going to want it.' But that's not going to fly," said Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 589, which represents LIRR electricians. "To sit there and pacify Albany and create this mess is a mistake."

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