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New MTA, LIRR talks set; Congress 'not an option' in impasse

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast, right, meets

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast, right, meets with some of the Long Island congressional delegation in Washington on Wednesday, July 9, 2014, in an effort to avert a pending Long Island Rail Road strike. Left to right are representatives Steve Israel, Peter King and Tim Bishop. Credit: Charlie Archambault

WASHINGTON - MTA and Long Island Rail Road union officials said they would resume talks Thursday to break a contract impasse after key members of Congress said it would not intervene now and demanded that both sides negotiate a deal before the July 20 strike deadline.

The New York lawmakers, including four of Long Island's five House representatives, made the demand Wednesday at a nearly hourlong meeting in a House committee room with MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast.

"At this time, a congressional solution is not an option," Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Harlem) said afterward.

"There is no room at all to speculate about what could happen" in Congress if there is a strike, said Rangel, who with Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) and Peter King (R-Seaford) led the meeting. Also in attendance were Reps. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), Grace Meng (D-Queens), Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan) and Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Queens).

The blunt message from the New York delegation did not rule out congressional action if there is a strike, but stressed that it would be very difficult.

Prendergast said he requested the meeting with the New York delegation to ask what Congress intends to do about the deadlocked four-year-long contract dispute between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and eight unions representing 5,400 LIRR workers. Later in the day, Prendergast met privately with King and Israel.

Prendergast did not schedule meetings with House and Senate leaders, his aide said.

"We wanted to send a very clear message to people if they think Congress acting quickly after a strike to take action and order them to back to work and impose a solution was something they could pursue, the likelihood of that happening is exceptionally low," he said.

Union leaders, though, denied the assertion by Prendergast and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that they were seeking a settlement that would be imposed by Congress after a strike. In a letter Wednesday to congressional leaders, union leaders said, "We are not asking Congress to intervene."

After the meeting, Prendergast and lead union negotiator Anthony Simon said they agreed to have negotiators meet again in Manhattan Thursday.

"We should not be relying on Congress to get involved," Simon said. "There's 10 days."


Still far apart on issues

Despite agreeing to meet again, both sides remained far apart on many issues.

Prendergast said he acceded to the delegation's demand that both parties meet again and that labor unions make a counteroffer.

But Simon said the last offer put on the table was the union's counter to the MTA's most recent proposal. He said the agency did not put forth a new proposal Tuesday.

"Apparently there's a disconnect on what's a counter and what's not a counter."

The unions have called for the MTA to follow recommendations of two independent White House-appointed mediation boards, which both called for a six-year pact with net raises totaling 17 percent, first-time employee health care contributions, and no changes in work rules or pensions.

The MTA wants to extend the 17 percent raises over seven years and is calling for concessions from future workers, including health care contributions twice the amount of current workers, doubling how long it takes to reach top pay, and having them permanently contribute toward pensions. Now, most current workers contribute for 10 years.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said there's no reason to believe Congress could resolve the contract dispute "given House Republicans' continuing dysfunction and obstruction."


Cuomo shifts stance

The delegation's response also prompted Cuomo to shift his focus from Congress to negotiations as the best solution for breaking the deadlock between the two sides.

On Monday, he downplayed any role he might play. But Wednesday, he thanked Congress for "making it abundantly clear that the only path to resolution is at the bargaining table between the MTA and the unions."

GOP gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino in a news release said Cuomo, by punting the issue to Congress, is failing to show leadership on the contract impasse. Cuomo's office declined to comment.

If Congress chooses to intervene, it could extend the "cooling-off period," pushing back the strike deadline by weeks or months; order both sides to go before a third party, which would hand down a new contract; impose the recommendations of the two Presidential Emergency Boards and give the unions the contract they have demanded; come up with its own contract on which union members could not vote; or opt to stay out of the dispute.

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