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MTA, LIRR union relationship worse than ever; up next is collective bargaining

LIRR president Phillip Eng said

LIRR president Phillip Eng said "I am looking at trying new ideas, and I'm talking with all labor leaders." Credit: Howard Schnapp

The MTA is looking to make big changes to LIRR union contracts, including doing away with double-time pay for certain overtime assignments, scrutinizing workers who call out sick, and being able to contract out work whenever it wants, according to documents obtained by Newsday.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's demands come amid a deep and growing rift with LIRR union leaders that could have major consequences for Long Island commuters, including a potential shutdown of the nation's largest commuter railroad. The unions’ most recent contract has been up for renewal since April, and they are seeking 5 percent annual raises for the next three years.

Both sides declined to discuss their demands, which are seen as a starting point in a negotiating process that could take up to four years. 

The 42-page "Section 6 Notice" filed by the MTA as part of the formal commencement of collective bargaining with its 10 LIRR unions proposes numerous changes to employee wage structures, benefits and work rules. They include the elimination of double-time pay, which some employees accrue after working a certain number of consecutive overtime hours; a restriction against working more than 16 hours in a row; and a provision allowing the railroad "the ability to contract out any work at its sole and exclusive discretion."

The proposal also calls for doubling — from five years to 10 — how long new employees must work before being eligible for pension benefits, and placing new restrictions on sick leave, including designating as "AWOL" any employee who calls out sick but is unavailable when called or visited.

Although both sides have filed their demands, it’s unlikely talks between LIRR unions and MTA management will start anytime soon, as tensions between the sides remain as high as they have been in years. That's in part because of allegations of overtime fraud among workers and a planned consolidation of the authority that could result in up to 2,700 job losses.

Looming in the distance, if a truce can't be reached, is the possibility of a walkout by LIRR workers, who, unlike other MTA union employees, are not covered under the state's Taylor Law prohibiting strikes.

“I don’t think we even have that on our mind,” said Anthony Simon, general chairman of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers, the LIRR’s largest union. “What we have on our mind is a safe operation, getting these projects completed safely, and our members being treated with respect. You cannot deny the fact that this membership has been vilified and attacked every single way, and they’re still out there working.“

Without an improvement in the tone of conversations, railroad labor expert Frank Wilner said the sides could be headed toward a “nightmare situation.”

“It’s going to be much more difficult to reach a voluntary settlement at the negotiating table,” said Wilner, a former White House-appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board and author of Understanding the Railway Labor Act.

Union officials said the sides are considerably further apart than when negotiations began on their last major contract dispute, which lasted about four years. That impasse required intervention from Congress and the White House before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — three days before a strike deadline — brokered a deal, on July 7, 2014, to keep workers on the job and avert a shutdown.

Now, five years later, Christopher Natale, general chairman of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen Local 56, said he’s “never seen the gulf wider than right now between labor and management” at the railroad.

Union officials said morale among workers is at a historic low, as several railroad infrastructure projects have increased their workload. At the same time, some MTA leaders have made allegations of overtime abuse among employees.

Labor leaders also have complained about a lack of communication with LIRR upper management, which they said has been leaning on outsiders — including consultants — rather than soliciting input from workers in advancing major initiatives, such as the ongoing LIRR Forward plan to improve railroad service.

MTA leaders have downplayed the perceived clash with unions. LIRR president Phillip Eng, who regularly commends workers for their efforts, said that while he and union leaders may not always agree, he is committed to ensuring that workers have "clear direction and the right resources to do the job safely and effectively."

“I think what you’re hearing is natural tension between labor and management,” Eng said. “I wasn’t brought in here to just do the status quo. I am looking at trying new ideas, and I’m talking with all labor leaders. In fact, we have made changes that have been successful, and we couldn’t do that without working with our labor partners.”

Eng also said he doesn’t think overtime abuse is widespread among workers, but does support efforts to address the issue, if only to be able to assure the public that the railroad’s overtime costs are legitimate.

The MTA’s heightened focus on overtime follows an April financial report from the Empire Center for Public Policy that revealed alarmingly high overtime rates among some MTA employees, including former LIRR chief measurement officer Thomas Caputo, who made $344,147 in overtime on top of his base salary of $117,499.

MTA brass has emphasized the need to reduce labor costs, and rein in antiquated and burdensome union work rules, to help shrink a growing operating deficit that is projected to reach $1 billion by 2023. The bulk of the job cuts would come from department consolidations, the MTA said, but the agency would not rule out the loss of union jobs.

Both sides have reasons to put off negotiations. The results of several ending investigations into overtime fraud, including by the Queens and federal prosecutors, could affect either side's momentum heading into talks — as could national politics.

An impasse in negotiations could bring the dispute before the National Mediation Board, whose members are confirmed by the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. And the last stop for a railroad contract logjam is a Presidential Emergency Board, whose members would be appointed by the White House and make recommendations on a settlement.

“We’re not in a labor-friendly environment at all,” Natale said. “Why would we ever put ourselves in a situation where we would let [President Donald] Trump put his fingers in the pot? It would be a disaster.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said he believes negotiations between the LIRR and management “should not only consider efficiencies, but also provide workers with the compensation they have earned while holding bad actors accountable.”

“Federal mediators are not currently involved, and for the sake of LIRR unions, the MTA, and the hundreds of thousands of Long Islanders who rely on public transportation, LIRR unions and the MTA must come to the table long before federal intervention becomes necessary,” Zeldin said.

Mitchell Pally, chief executive officer of the Long Island Builders Institute, a planning and advocacy group, said he doesn’t believe President Trump will make much of a difference in the fate of the contract dispute because, “In the end . . . it only matters what one person says.”

“And that’s the governor of the State of New York,” said Pally, who sat on the MTA Board during the contentious 2014 negotiations. Pally said, like then, it could come down to whether Cuomo is willing to endure a crippling LIRR union strike.

“The way the statute is, there is no question that the railroad unions have a power that the city subway and bus unions do not have,” Pally said.

Assemb. Judy Griffin (D-Rockville Centre), while calling for better communication from both sides, urged the public to have a better understanding and appreciation of LIRR laborers.

After Griffin’s brother, LIRR electric traction worker Joseph Boyd, was struck and killed on the job by a train, she said his co-workers rallied around her family, and donated “a couple thousand dollars” to them.

“Sometimes we hear the negative about workers on the Long Island Rail Road. But I saw firsthand what great guys they were and how hard they worked,” Griffin said.

MTA VS. UNIONS OVER THE YEARS

With collective bargaining on the table, union representatives and MTA management are both worried that their relationship has soured. A look at how that may have happened:

  • August 2014: Three days before LIRR unions were prepared to go on strike, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo brokers a deal to keep railroad workers on the job by agreeing to 17 percent raises over 6¹/₂ years.
  • September 2017: LIRR unions and MTA management quietly agree to another contract that largely extended the terms of the 2014 accord.
  • April 2018: Phillip Eng, an engineer who spent much of his career at the state Department of Transportation, replaces Patrick Nowakowski as president of the Long Island Rail Road, and soon announces his “LIRR Forward” service improvement initiative.
  • March 2019: At a State Senate hearing on LIRR issues, railroad union chief Anthony Simon describes an unprecedented “communication breakdown” between railroad management and workers. Eng and other senior managers leave the hearing without hearing Simon’s testimony.
  • April 2019: The latest round of collective bargaining officially begins with railroad management and labor putting forth their contract demands.
  • April 2019: Patrick Foye is sworn in as the new chairman and chief executive officer of the MTA.
  • April 2019: A report by the Empire Center for Public Policy reveals alarmingly high overtime rates among some LIRR workers.
  • May 2019: The MTA Board holds an emergency meeting on the topic of overtime, and announces plans to investigate the issue, including by hiring a special counsel and by installing biometric time clocks at employee facilities to ensure workers are where they’re supposed to be.
  • June 2019: The MTA’s inspector general investigates what she calls the apparent “sabotage” of a new biometric clock at an LIRR employee facility in Jamaica. The clock helps verify overtime hours.
  • July 2019: The MTA Board approves a sweeping reorganization plan that could entail the elimination of 2,700 jobs. LIRR labor leaders ask for assurances that there will be no layoffs of union workers, but Foye says he can’t make that guarantee. At the same meeting, Foye raises concerns about “employee availability,” suggesting that some workers take too many sick days — resulting in their jobs having to be filled on overtime.

SOURCE: Newsday reporting

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