A hostile bargaining session between the MTA and Long Island Rail Road labor leaders broke off after 90 minutes early Friday with no deal in place and union officials saying a July 20 strike is more likely than ever.
"Here we go," Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, said after leaving the session. "Unless something happens at the eleventh hour, we're preparing for a strike."
The Times Square meeting was scheduled to discuss the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's latest offer in its four-year contract dispute with eight LIRR unions.
The plan promises current LIRR workers the 17 percent raises they are demanding, but spreads them out over seven years, instead of the six the unions have sought, and requires concessions involving future LIRR employees' wages and benefits.
A union economist maintains the offer is worth less than half the value of the contract recommended by two separate federal mediation boards and demanded by the unions. But MTA officials say the proposal would pay the average, current LIRR worker more than he could expect to make under the union plan.
At the meeting, the unions made a counteroffer that lead negotiator Anthony Simon called "a reasonable compromise," but would not detail.
Union representatives stepped out of the meeting for about 10 minutes before being called to return. Less than five minutes later, the session was over, with both union and MTA officials expressing their disappointment.
MTA labor relations director Anita Miller said Simon's version of events was "absolutely not true." She said MTA negotiators wanted to continue talks, but the union refused to move from the same position they have held for months -- namely the contract recommended by two federal mediation boards.
"What was presented to us was a response. It was not a counteroffer," Miller said. "The unions were present physically, but they clearly did not come with the intent of having meaningful negotiations."
The latest round of negotiations got off to a rocky start before both sides reached the table, because the unions were angered that the MTA released its offer to the public before discussing it with the unions privately.
Frank Wilner, a former White House-appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board and retired United Transportation Union spokesman, said one of the cardinal rules of negotiations is don't "embarrass the other side."
"Once trust evaporates, so does hope of a peaceful outcome," Wilner said.
Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said MTA negotiators' response to their counteroffer was "an adamant 'no.' "
"It was moving. We could have found some common ground, or at least a counteroffer," Sanchez said.
"They should be ashamed of themselves," Simon said, adding that the two sides left the table with no plans for future talks, and with MTA negotiators saying they were willing to "endure a strike."