Some LIRR unions have broken with SMART general chairman Anthony Simon’s...

Some LIRR unions have broken with SMART general chairman Anthony Simon’s union at the bargaining table, wanting more favorable contract terms. Credit: Howard Simmons

A recently settled contract that grants 3,200 Long Island Rail Road workers 9.5% in raises over three years has deepened divisions between the LIRR’s largest union and the heads of several other unions holding out for more, according to labor leaders.

At an impasse over a new deal, six labor organizations representing the majority of unionized railroad workers have broken with the LIRR's largest union, and have each filed for federal mediation, an early step in a lengthy process that, if unresolved, could culminate in a work stoppage at the largest commuter railroad in the United States.

The agreement reached between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (SMART) follows the terms set last June with the deal reached between the MTA and the Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represent New York City bus and subway employees. That three-year deal offered workers 3% raises in the first and second years, and a 3.5% raise in the third year.

In November, SMART — which represents 3,200 LIRR workers ranging from train conductors to station cleaners to track workers — and the MTA quietly reached a deal with the same pattern as that of the TWU contract. Although the deal does not include any changes to work rules, both sides also agreed to “continue discussions on … work-rule reform proposals” made by the LIRR, according to a memorandum of understanding obtained by Newsday.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • In November, the MTA reached a new contract agreement with the LIRR's largest union, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers, giving 3,200 workers raises of 9.5% over three years.
  • After negotiating together for years, six other LIRR unions have parted with SMART, wanting to negotiate a contract with more favorable terms for their members.
  • Those six unions, which collectively represent the majority of LIRR laborers, have filed for national mediation, an early step in a process that, if unresolved, could result in a work stoppage.

MTA officials did not disclose the details of those proposals, and declined to comment.

Union work rules govern how employees can earn extra pay, including overtime, which cost the MTA a record-high $1.42 billion last year. Overall, labor costs — including for payroll, overtime and pensions — account for 61% of the MTA’s $19.3 billion 2024 operating budget, according to the MTA.

Deal passed with 86% vote

Asked about the deal, which runs through August 2026, SMART general chairman Anthony Simon — LIRR labor’s main negotiator for nearly 20 years — said his members “are pleased with the contract,” which was ratified by 86% of voting members.

But other LIRR unions, which previously negotiated alongside SMART, have broken with Simon’s union, wanting more favorable terms and disagreeing that LIRR workers should follow the precedent set by city bus and subway workers under what's known as “pattern bargaining.”

In September, five LIRR unions, including those representing locomotive engineers, electricians and signal workers, formed what they called The Long Island Rail Road Bargaining Coalition. The faction has pointed to higher wage increases achieved by unions representing workers at other railroads throughout the U.S., including Amtrak, as evidence that they deserve more than the 9.5% increase over three years. 

“All we were saying was, ‘You can negotiate, but we’re done with this pattern bargaining. It works for you. It works for nobody else,’ ” Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 589, which represents LIRR electricians, said in an interview. “We’re done with it. That reign of this pattern bargaining is over. But it took 30 years.”

Sanchez also noted that some of the union work rules that SMART historically has prioritized, including those governing overtime, are less valuable to other unions.

"We're done with this pattern bargaining," said Ricardo Sanchez, general...

"We're done with this pattern bargaining," said Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 589. Credit: Howard Schnapp

LIRR management, and federal mediators, have declined to recognize the partnering unions as a coalition. In an October letter to the unions, LIRR deputy chief labor relations officer Kelli Coughlin said the railroad “is not required to participate in such joint bargaining. We are eager and remain prepared to engage separately with each of your organizations.”

Recently, another union has broken with SMART. Leaders of the Transportation Communication Union (TCU), which historically has been closely aligned with SMART, chose not to take the deal reached by SMART in November, and stayed at the negotiating table looking for better terms.

According to a letter written by Simon to his members, the MTA ultimately offered the TCU an additional 1.9% wage increase over the 9.5% negotiated by SMART, but with several givebacks, including higher employee health care contributions and “opening the door to work-rule concessions” about overtime.

Because of the concessions, Simon, in his letter, said there was “not greater value in the TCU deal” than the one he negotiated. Simon wrote that his union had reached “the final straw” in its working relationship with the TCU, which represents various LIRR crafts, including ticket clerks.

The TCU contract offer was ultimately voted down by workers. TCU leaders did not respond to requests for comment.

Trying to keep dissension out of view

In a statement, Simon signaled his preference for keeping any dissension away from public view.

“While unions may not always agree on what’s best for their respective memberships, engaging in public disputes is against all of the principles of the labor movement,” Simon said. “SMART … will continue to do what’s best for its membership.”

Records show that the six unions without a new contract have, in recent months, each filed cases with the National Mediation Board, which intervenes to help resolve labor disputes. If a deal cannot be reached, the dispute eventually could result in the empaneling of a Presidential Emergency Board, whose members would be appointed by the White House and make recommendations on a settlement.

If an agreement still isn’t reached, unions could go on strike. Unlike bus and subway workers, who are covered under the State’s Taylor Law, which prohibits strikes, LIRR unions are covered by the federal Railway Labor Act, which allows for work stoppages when all other options have been exhausted.

The last time a Presidential Emergency Board was empaneled, in 2014, LIRR unions came within three days of a strike deadline, before Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo intervened and brokered a deal with Simon that gave workers 17% raises over seven years.

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