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Officials: LIRR unions, MTA heading back to bargaining table

LIRR customers board a train at Penn Station

LIRR customers board a train at Penn Station on Dec. 20, 2013.

Long Island Rail Road union leaders and MTA managers will meet Friday for their first face-to-face contract negotiation session in nearly two months, five weeks before a possible strike that could strand 300,000 daily commuters, a key union official and an MTA source said.

"It's a good start that we're getting in the room," Anthony Simon, general chairman of the LIRR's largest labor group, the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union/United Transportation Union, said Thursday. "If it goes well, we'll go to a second day, then a third day. If we're making progress, we'll continue to sit down."

In a statement, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would neither confirm nor deny that the meeting was scheduled, but said the agency's goal, and customers' expectations, remained for both sides "to sit down at the bargaining table and negotiate a fair and reasonable settlement."

The open-ended talks, which will take place at an undisclosed time and location, came about after MTA officials and union leaders exchanged phone calls in recent days, said Simon and the MTA source, who requested anonymity. The meeting is the first between the two sides since a White House-appointed board of mediators ruled last month in favor of eight LIRR unions in their four-year-long contract fight with the MTA.

Although both sides had said they intended to return to the bargaining table immediately after the Presidential Emergency Board issued its recommendations, talks stalled.

The unions said they would negotiate only if the common goal were implementing the board's recommendations, which called for 17 percent raises over six years and no changes to employee work rules or pensions.

MTA officials sought a leaner contract promising 11 percent raises and various changes to pensions and other benefits.

Simon said no conditions had been placed on the new round of talks.

"There's no agreement to anybody's terms right now. We just agreed to get in a room," said Simon, who, along with Transportation Communications Union general chairman Arthur Maratea, will represent LIRR unions at the meeting.

Without a deal in place, nearly 6,000 LIRR workers could legally strike next month.

The unions have offered to extend the July 20 strike deadline until after Labor Day -- a proposal the MTA has not accepted.

With two presidential boards siding with the unions, and with Congress likely to impose those boards' recommendations in the event of a strike, former railroad law expert Frank Wilner said LIRR labor leaders are likely to stand their ground.

"They wouldn't be serving their members right now if they backtracked," said Wilner, a former White House-appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board and retired United Transportation Union spokesman. "Everything is on their side."

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