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MTA balks at Long Island congressional delegation's call to push back LIRR strike date

The MTA on Thursday, June 19, 2014, balked

The MTA on Thursday, June 19, 2014, balked at a call from Long Island's congressional delegation urging the transit agency to accept an offer from Long Island Rail Road union leaders to postpone a possible July strike until September. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr., File

Long Island's congressional delegation urged the MTA Thursday to accept an offer from LIRR union leaders to postpone a possible July strike until September.

But Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials balked at the request, saying a summer strike would hurt Long Islanders less than one in the fall.

In a letter sent Thursday to MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast, 10 members of Congress, including five who represent Long Island, voiced their support for extending the federally regulated "cooling-off" period in the ongoing Long Island Rail Road contract dispute by 60 days. Doing so would prevent unions from legally walking off the job until after Labor Day, instead of on July 20.

"We believe that the MTA and the LIRR employee labor unions should exercise every reasonable option to spare LIRR riders from any interruption of regular service," the letter said. "Though the two sides have so far been unable to come together and reach a mutually agreeable solution, we believe that additional time for negotiations will help ensure that an agreement is reached before any work stoppage would occur."

The letter was co-authored by Reps. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Peter King (R-Seaford) and includes the signatures of Reps. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola), Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans), Grace Meng (D-Queens), Joseph Crowley (D-Woodside), Jerrold Nadler (D-Manhattan), Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn). The MTA and the unions have met just once, for a few hours, since a White House-appointed mediation board a month ago issued a nonbinding ruling in support of the unions' proposal for a six-year contract with 17 percent raises. The MTA wants a slimmer contract, with 11 percent raises and union givebacks.

No other talks are scheduled, according to the unions' lead negotiator, Anthony Simon, and the LIRR Thursday began mailing July monthly tickets to about 31,000 commuters who have no guarantee there will be any LIRR service to speak of in the second half of the month.

The union reached out to the MTA about two weeks ago with the proposal to push back the strike deadline, with the goal of sparing Long Island's summer tourism economy from the impact of an LIRR shutdown. MTA officials have so far not accepted the offer, saying discussion of an extension is premature, and that both sides should focus on negotiations.

In his own letter to Israel sent Thursday, Prendergast said "a union walkout would hurt the most in September -- when families are back from vacation and schools are in session." Prendergast asked Israel for his help in keeping the unions at the bargaining table.

"We know that this is an issue that is important to Congress, and we wanted to make sure that they understand our position," MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said.

In a statement, Simon said the MTA's reluctance to delay the strike deadline "reflects the same attitude they've shown all along -- 'We could care less.' "

"The arrogance and disrespect on the MTA's part to both Congress and two Presidential Emergency Boards is mind-boggling," Simon said. "This is exactly why we are 30 days away from disaster."

Israel said buying more time to work out a deal is in all parties' best interest.

"The MTA's being shortsighted," Israel said in an interview. "They're not even willing to grant additional time to negotiate a settlement. It suggests they're too dug in. . . . The MTA ought to be doing everything and anything to negotiate in good faith."

It's the second time this year federal lawmakers have pushed the MTA to work harder toward a settlement of the four-year-long contract fight. With a possible March strike looming, congressional members wrote Prendergast in February urging the MTA to either accept the union's contract proposal, or ask for a second Presidential Emergency Board to review the dispute. The MTA requested a federal board the next day.

King said in an interview he expects that the latest letter to the MTA "should have an impact," especially because Congress could ultimately decide the contract dispute. Extending the cooling-off period, King said, would allow both sides to "keep the lines of communication open, put off the strike as much as we can, and try to find some common ground here."

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