Long Island Rail Road managers and the unions representing most of their workers are taking early steps to prepare for a possible strike next year if both sides can't resolve a 3 1/2-year-long contract dispute.
Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union -- the LIRR's largest labor organization -- said Friday that the eight unions representing about 5,600 of the LIRR's 6,000 unionized employees are coordinating "strike captains" for a work stoppage.
And Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Adam Lisberg, when asked if the MTA was preparing for a strike, said the agency is "making plans for every possible contingency."
"Every union has called emergency meetings to be prepared," said Simon, who blames management for "provoking" what would be the first strike of most of the LIRR's workforce in two decades. "They're playing a dangerous game of Russian roulette."
LIRR unions have been without a contract since June 2010. Having not reached a deal in the first 16 months, the unions and the LIRR first went to the National Mediation Board -- an independent agency that helps broker labor agreements -- in October 2011. Last month, the unions were released from arbitration without a deal.
The MTA says it will formally request next week that the White House appoint a Presidential Emergency Board to hear both sides, and make a nonbinding recommendation for a contract deal. If one is not reached, a second presidential board can be appointed.
If an agreement is not in place by next July, workers could legally strike -- potentially stranding 300,000 weekday customers. LIRR president Helena Williams said Friday that she hopes it doesn't come to that.
"I don't think a work stoppage is a good outcome for either party," Williams said. "A better outcome is negotiations at the table."
The latest dust-up between MTA management and LIRR unions came earlier this week, when the authority announced its intention to reduce a planned 2015 fare increase to 4 percent from the originally planned 7.5 percent, but only if unions would agree to a three-year freeze on labor costs.
Under the "three net zeros" plan sought by the MTA, workers could get raises, but only if they were funded through other concessions, such as doing away with antiquated union work rules. Workers have rejected the proposal so far, but Simon said union leaders have offered changes, involving pension reform and health care contributions.
Simon said the MTA's decision to announce the reduced fare hike 16 months before it would take effect was part of a "ploy" to turn riders against union workers. Simon said he received more than one report of workers being confronted by angry customers accusing them of being "greedy."
"They [MTA managers] basically are saying to the riding public, unless labor voluntarily accepts a three-year wage freeze, or gives up things that were agreed upon in past negotiations to pay for raises, blame our workers," Simon said.
Lisberg said there was nothing "nefarious" about the reduced fare hike announcement, and that the MTA has been clear for more than two years that the three-year labor cost freeze is necessary for the agency to balance its books.
"Our riders have sacrificed in the form of higher fares and tolls. Our management employees have sacrificed by going five years without raises," Lisberg said. "We're simply saying that our represented employees need to sacrifice as well."Simon disputed that managers have not had raises, saying that salary increases have been disguised as promotions or title changes.
Economist Greg DeFreitas, who heads Hofstra University's Labor Studies program, said he did believe MTA management is trying to gain leverage with promises of reduced fare hikes and better service for the public "if only the unions would give in."
Despite earning high grades from customers in the railroad's annual customer satisfaction survey released Tuesday, LIRR workers have a harder time winning over the public, DeFreitas said, in part because of the controversy involving retired LIRR workers being accused of federal disability pension fraud.
"I would think the MTA probably thinks they're in an incredibly strong position," DeFreitas said. "Strikes are the only weapon that unions have when they're at an impasse."
By the numbers
5,600: LIRR workers affected by contract impasse.
3.5: Years since union workers had contract.
270: Days until possible strike.
3: Years of labor-cost freeze the MTA is proposing.
19: Years since the last strike involving most LIRR unions (June 1994).
300,000: Weekday LIRR customers who'd be affected by a strike.