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MTA chief: LIRR unions determined to strike, rely on Congress to solve dispute

MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast speaks following

MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast speaks following the April 2014 Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Board Meeting, Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Credit: Bryan Smith / Bryan Smith

MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said Long Island Rail Road unions are determined to walk off their jobs, counting on Congress to impose the contract they are demanding in order to end a crippling strike.

Prendergast said he believes the unions plan to go on strike with the expectation that after one or two days, Congress would intervene and impose the contract recommended by two White House-appointed mediation panels.

Those two presidential emergency boards called for a six-year pact with net raises for workers totaling 17 percent and first-time-ever health care cost contributions by workers, but no changes to work rules or pensions.

"That's an extremely risky strategy," Prendergast said. "That's risking an awful lot on something that is, by no means, for sure."

While not confirming nor denying that hoping for congressional intervention is his game plan, lead LIRR union negotiator Anthony Simon said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should not take that chance, and instead should agree to give workers what they deserve now.

"If that's the strategy of the unions -- and I'm not saying it is . . . then there's a pretty good opportunity for us to get ," Simon said.

The MTA and eight unions representing 5,400 LIRR workers remain deadlocked in a four-year-long contract dispute that could climax with a July 20 strike. The two sides are set to meet again Tuesday in front of the National Mediation Board. But, convinced that union leaders have already chosen their path, Prendergast sees "no reason for them to come to the session Tuesday and actively negotiate."


Spreading out raises

The MTA has proposed spreading out the 17 percent raises over seven years and helping fund them by having new employees pay more in health care and pension costs and take longer to achieve top pay.

For example, any LIRR workers hired after the contract is ratified would have to work twice as many years to achieve top pay and would contribute 4 percent of weekly wages to health care costs -- or twice as much as previously hired workers.

Prendergast said the agency's latest offer is not "a take it or leave it" proposition and that it intends to continue negotiating Tuesday. The unions said they offered a counterproposal, but the MTA said that move just repeated the presidential emergency boards' recommendations and rejected it. The unions have not disclosed details of their counteroffer.

Having "run circuit checks" to gauge how members of Congress might act in the event of a strike, Prendergast said he's received indications that they plan to stay out of the dispute -- potentially resulting in a prolonged strike that would devastate Long Island's economy and strand hundreds of thousands of LIRR commuters for several days in the July heat.

"We're hearing that are not going to act and they are not going to order them back to work," Prendergast said. "If it doesn't happen, we're in for a long, hot summer."

In the event of a railroad strike, the U.S. Senate and House can intervene in several ways, or not at all. Options include extending the federally regulated "cooling off period" to push the strike deadline back weeks or months, ordering binding arbitration, imposing the contract recommended by the Presidential Emergency Boards, or Congress drafting and imposing its own contract.


Congressmen skeptical

Two local members of the House of Representatives who have expressed support for the unions said getting congressional intervention will not be easy or quick.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said Saturday that it would be "exceedingly difficult" to persuade a Republican-controlled House to "end a strike on Long Island." He cited the House's delays in approving a relief package for New York after superstorm Sandy as an indication of how it might respond to an LIRR work stoppage.

While he would not give strategy advice to the unions, Israel said, "I do know that, as a member of Congress, that it's very important to count your votes."

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) similarly said it would be a mistake for either side to count on Congress resolving the labor clash, especially with the House so far taking a "hands off" approach to the matter.

"I would encourage both sides to try to resolve it on the state level and not counting on Congress acting or not acting," King said.

Simon, general chairman of the LIRR's largest labor organization, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, said if the MTA believes the union is intent on striking in order to force Congress' hand, the agency should move to prevent that by agreeing to the presidential board's recommended contract, especially since the MTA has said it would cost the agency roughly the same amount -- $40 million annually -- as the MTA's current proposed settlement. The MTA says its offer would achieve savings over the long term.

"We should not be playing Russian roulette with what Congress will or won't do . . . ," Simon said. "We should be worried about getting this done and over with and not having a work stoppage."

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