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MTA, LIRR unions: Informal contract talks to go through night

Commuters during rush hour at Penn Station Tuesday

Commuters during rush hour at Penn Station Tuesday July 15, 2014. The MTA and the LIRR unions are preparing for a strike that could begin at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

MTA and Long Island Rail Road unions, heeding a call from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, returned to the bargaining table and committed to talk informally through the night and resume negotiating Thursday to avert a 12:01 a.m. Sunday strike.

In a marked change of tone from earlier this week, when both sides sent dueling messages making their cases, LIRR union leaders and reps for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority held a lengthy negotiation session Wednesday. Both sides indicated the five-hour talks were a positive sign.

In an earlier statement, Cuomo called for the two sides to return to the table. "We must do everything we can to prevent Long Islanders from being held hostage by a strike that would damage the regional economy and be highly disruptive for commuters," he said.

The developments came as the White House weighed in on the labor dispute affecting the nation's largest commuter railroad. Nearing the end of the federal process designed to avoid work stoppages, White House spokesman Keith Maley said President Barack Obama's administration hopes "both sides will be able to resolve this issue quickly in a way that is fair for workers, fair for the State of New York, and fair for residents in and around Long Island."

After calls from Long Island's congressional delegation Tuesday and from Cuomo Wednesday, the two sides met in the Times Square law office of Proskauer Rose. Shortly before 7 p.m., they broke off, promising to continue talking through the night over the phone and, if necessary, through video conferencing, before resuming in-person talks at 10 Thursday morning.

"I think being in a room is progress . . . We're having communication, and that brings us closer," lead union negotiator Anthony Simon said. "The message to the riding public is what we've said all along: We are not going to leave the table until we can do everything in our power to prevent a work stoppage."

Asked after the talks about the likelihood of a stoppage Sunday, Simon said the unions "don't want to alarm the public" and want to get the "rhetoric" between the sides out of the way.

While not disclosing whether either side put new offers on the table Wednesday, Simon said union leaders, who planned to stay in Manhattan Wednesday night, intended to spend their evening "crunching numbers . . . We need to go over a lot of things."

MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast attended the talks, but he left after a few hours.

The agency's current proposal calls for 17 percent raises for current workers over seven years and asks health care contributions of 2 percent of weekly wages. To help fund the raises, the MTA wants future workers to pay twice as much in health care costs, take twice as long to achieve top pay and contribute to pensions permanently, instead of for 10 years, as most now do.

The unions, following the recommendations of two federal mediation boards, want the 17 percent raises over six years, and, according to the MTA, have proposed much smaller concessions for future workers that amount to 0.15 percent savings from their previous offer.

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg declined to characterize what went on at the bargaining table Wednesday, but he said the fact that negotiations were happening after a breakdown Monday was "a good sign."

"We remain committed to reaching a fair and reasonable solution at the bargaining table," Lisberg said at the end of Wednesday's talks. "And we're committed to doing whatever it takes to negotiate and make that happen . . . "

The productive meeting was a sudden shift in the dispute. Earlier, the LIRR's largest labor organization, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, released an "open letter to riders" in which it predicted that the MTA's "irresponsible actions will cause a strike beginning this weekend."

Lisberg, asked to respond to the union's letter, said the MTA didn't want to engage in a "tit for tat."

With Tom Brune

and Yancey Roy

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