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MTA seeks commuter groups' backing in LIRR contract fight

The MTA has asked President Obama to appoint

The MTA has asked President Obama to appoint another Presidential Emergency Board to help settle an impasse between the agency and labor unions. Credit: Chris Ware

The MTA's chief wants commuter watchdog groups to help win public support for the agency in its ongoing contract dispute with LIRR union workers threatening to strike this summer.

But the head of the LIRR Commuter Council said Thursday his group would not take sides and is only concerned with what's best for riders.

Thomas Prendergast, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman and chief executive, made the overture at a Manhattan meeting of the MTA's Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, which includes the LIRR Commuter Council.

The MTA and the unions representing most LIRR workers have been locked in a contentious labor dispute that could culminate in a July strike. The unions want the MTA to accept the recommendations of federal mediators who called for a six-year contract with 17 percent raises and no changes to existing work rules.

The MTA has said the raises, without the work rule changes or other significant union concessions, would be financially devastating to the agency and could force steep fare hikes or slashing critical capital investments.

Commuter groups understand better than most the impact of such drastic financial measures, said Prendergast, who called the watchdogs "apostles or disciples" of the MTA.

"Whether you weigh in or not is your decision, but as someone who is an advocate for the system and for the rider, I ask that you consider that carefully, because this is different than all the other strike situations before," Prendergast told the groups.

After the meeting, Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, said he did not believe that the committee should take a role in swaying public opinion about a possible strike.

"We are not choosing sides. We're here for the riders," Epstein said. "We want service continued without fare hikes."

Anthony Simon, leader of a coalition representing most LIRR union workers, said Prendergast's attempt to recruit commuter advocates in the labor disagreement was "desperate" and could put employees at risk from "misinformed" riders.

"It is outrageous that the head of the MTA would stoop to trying to whip up public sentiment against his front-line employees," said Simon, adding that unions would hold Prendergast "personally responsible" if a conductor or ticket clerk is hurt.Epstein also pressed Prendergast for details on the MTA's contingency plan if a strike occurs. Prendergast said that unlike the last time LIRR union workers walked off their jobs in 1994, he expected the agency to use carpooling and telecommuting, and not rely as much on shuttle buses.

Prendergast said the MTA is still working on a strike contingency plan and is "fast approaching the point" it will have to communicate it to the public.

"We are trying very hard to try to keep from having to get to that point," Prendergast said, "because the pain on the customers, the pain on the public and the pain on businesses is so significant."

With Maria Alvarez

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