The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's ability to balance its books and continue investing in its transit network hinges on this week's negotiations with eight LIRR unions, agency officials said.
MTA officials say the agency has compromised considerably in crafting a contract offer that gives 5,400 Long Island Rail Road workers everything they want -- and more.
To close a deal that will spare 180,000 LIRR riders -- and New York's economy -- the immeasurable pain of a rail strike Sunday, MTA officials said labor leaders must be willing to bend too.
The MTA's offer also includes for current LIRR employees the 17 percent net raises recommended by two White House-appointed mediation boards and demanded by labor leaders, according to the MTA. Although the agency's offer spreads raises over seven years, instead of six, it also includes some incentives not even sought by workers -- including lower health contribution rates, and a new payment of at least $5 per shift to all workers.
"The MTA has put a proposal on the table that is substantial and shows our willingness to find a resolution that works for all parties," the agency's labor relations director Anita Miller said last month. "If the unions cause a painful strike by turning down an offer that gives their members everything that they've asked for, and in some instances more than what they've asked for, that will be a grave mistake."
Under the agency's proposal, MTA officials say, current workers stand to make more money than they would under the unions' plan. But, to help offset the costs of the raises for current workers, the MTA is asking that the unions agree to have future employees, the so-called "unborn," pay more into health care costs, longer into pensions, and wait longer to achieve top pay.
"Even with this new proposal, the new employees coming on board would still be the highest paid [railroad workers] in the country and would still have the best pension," MTA chairman and chief executive Thomas Prendergast said last month of LIRR workers, who, on average, are paid $87,000 annually with overtime. "We've moved considerably from where we started."
But labor leaders have said the agency's shifts in position are not commendable, and instead reflect the dishonesty with which they've handled bargaining.
"The unions have not changed . . . The MTA has changed how many times?" lead union negotiator Anthony Simon said last Monday. "That shows trust issues."
For more than three years, the MTA demanded that all its unions accept a five-year contract with just 4 percent total raises, and a three-year wage freeze. It moved off that in April when it reached a pact with subway workers for annual raises totaling 8 percent over five years.
Giving the Transport Workers Union that deal meant wiping out funds set aside to help pay LIRR retiree pensions, and taking $70 million set aside for capital improvements. Funding the MTA's current offer to LIRR unions -- and eventually Metro-North Railroad workers -- would mean using another $40 million in capital dollars.
"When we say we can afford it within the current financial plan, we're affording it at great sacrifice," Prendergast said recently.
Going even further to meet the full recommendations of two Presidential Emergency Boards, without any new union concessions, could mean sacrificing the MTA system's "state of good repair" or even another fare hike, Prendergast has said.
But union leaders have said even as the MTA cried broke, it has made questionable financial decisions in recent months, including not protesting the State Legislature's diversion of $40 million in dedicated transit funds in March. Prendergast said at the time he didn't protest because "our needs are being met."
"Everything they have said so far to this point has not been truthful," Simon said.