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LIRR contract bout a near-rematch of 1994 strike

Commuters walk from a Long Island Railroad train

Commuters walk from a Long Island Railroad train after a press conference at the Port Washington LIRR station in Port Washington on Nov. 15, 2013. Credit: Steve Pfost

The Long Island Rail Road's last major strike 20 years ago was preceded by months of fighting over worker raises, intervention by the White House and calls for a governor named Cuomo to resolve the impasse.

"There's a bunch of similarities," said Edward J. Yule, a Northport attorney who in 1994 served as spokesman for the LIRR unions led by his father, Edward Yule Jr.

In the current dispute, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority management said last week that it will let the White House intervene for a second time if a deal cannot be reached with LIRR union leaders within a few weeks.

The agency's demand that workers accept a three-year wage freeze, or make big concessions if they get a raise, has set the stage for the railroad's first strike since June 17, 1994.

On that date, laborers walked off the job after a four-day negotiating session in a Melville hotel. A board of mediators appointed by President Bill Clinton yielded no results.

At issue were the size of raises and the fate of antiquated work rules that paid employees extra wages for certain assignments, such as working on weekends. Because the walkout came on a Friday and was resolved by Sunday, LIRR commuters -- most of whom stayed home -- were inconvenienced for just one day.

Richard Goerke, 74, was one who did try to get to work. He endured a two-hour-plus bus ride from Patchogue to a subway station in Queens to get to his job at a Manhattan bank. "It was uncomfortable, but it got you to work," Goerke said.

With time, and options, still available to avert a work stoppage, the current contract dispute has not reached the level of urgency that occurred in 1994, according to some of the key players from the time.


Meeting coming up

The LIRR's union leaders, representing about 5,800 workers, will meet in Washington, D.C., this week with MTA negotiators before the National Mediation Board to try to reach a resolution prior to March 20, when the unions could legally strike.

The MTA, responding to a letter signed by a dozen Congress members from Long Island and New York City, said if a deal cannot be reached in the next few weeks, it will call for a second Presidential Emergency Board of mediators. The MTA rejected the findings of the first board.

At the center of the impasse is the MTA's "three net zeros" demand. Under the proposal, workers would have to agree to a three-year freeze on wages, or concessions equaling that much, including sizable employee contributions to health care benefits and the abolishment of some work rules.

A first emergency board concluded in December that the MTA could afford to give workers raises of 2.83 percent. The MTA has rejected that, saying the panel did not take into account the financial impact on the agency, which says it would have to raise fares, cut service, or reduce the size of its next capital plan to fund the raises.

"We're not as far along as we were in '94, as far as a crisis," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), who is among the Congress members urging the MTA to back off some of its demands and strike a deal with the unions.

Twenty years ago, King helped draft legislation that would force striking workers to return to work under a contract framed by a White House-appointed board of mediators. Congress never voted on the bill.

"As I recall, we were reluctant to have Congress get involved in the details of the settlement, but we used some pressure," King said.


Sticking together

Anthony Simon, the head of the LIRR's largest labor organization, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Union, was an assistant conductor 20 years ago with about four years on the job. "The first thing I thought of was how I was going to pay my bills . . . I had young children and I was like, 'I can't afford this.' But we stood together and the end result was our unity paid off," Simon said

"I think today our membership is more geared up than I was back then . . . for the long haul."Ultimately, then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, current Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's father, ended the 1994 strike by forcing the MTA to capitulate to the unions, giving them higher raises than the authority wanted and dropping its demands for work-rule changes. Then-MTA chairman Peter Stangl likened the deal to "paying a ransom to the union."

"The MTA caved," Yule said. "The union got almost everything it asked for. A lot of that I attribute to the politics, and the fact that it was an election year and there was pressure for the MTA to settle."

MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast, who as an agency vice president 20 years ago was charged with designing the LIRR's strike contingency plans, said there is "an open dialogue" with Cuomo's office, but that decisions are made by the MTA board.

Stangl, who is retired, noted Cuomo appoints most of the members of that board.

"Obviously, the governor is the governor and he has an important role," Stangl said.

Charles Hoppe, who served as LIRR president in 1994, said he hopes all sides will come to realize the devastating impact of a railroad strike. "The economics of Long Island are dependent on those issues being resolved," Hoppe said. "I was hoping we wouldn't have a strike then, and I'm hoping we won't have a strike now."


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