When the MTA and unions representing Long Island Rail Road workers walked away from the bargaining table Wednesday, they knew a strike deadline was looming.

But that deadline wasn't Sunday, as established publicly by the unions. It was, for practical purposes, much sooner: midnight Thursday.

The reason?

"We knew we had to settle it no later than Thursday night because people would start to head to Long Island by Thursday" for the weekend, said Anthony Simon, the unions' lead negotiator.

"We wanted to make sure that people planning to go out to Long Island for the weekend" knew the trains would still be running, an aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo agreed. "We wanted to avoid a weekend situation at the height of summer."

Doing so took a series of Wednesday night cellphone calls between Simon and Cuomo, an early resumption of talks Thursday, and a culminating lunch at Docks Oyster Bar on Third Avenue in Manhattan, downstairs from the governor's offices.

Cuomo, who is up for re-election, entered negotiations and, as he put it, took the ball over the goal line. Rob Astorino, his Republican opponent, called it scripted "political theater," and other observers said they had doubted a strike would actually happen because of its potential political costs. But union leaders and the Cuomo administration said everything was settled in the last 18 hours of talks.

"At 6, 6:15 [p.m.], I left the building with nothing really close," Simon recalled Thursday afternoon, after signing a 61/2-year contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "At that point is when I started having conversations with the governor as to what we could do."

Simon and a Cuomo official said several calls went back and forth. "Whether I was pacing in my room talking to him or downstairs [in a conference room], it was nonstop," said Simon, who had decamped to a Manhattan hotel to continue discussions via telephone.

He said Cuomo, at one point, said to the union and the MTA: "This is not something we take a strike over."

The conversations went on until about midnight, a source said. "I was too bleary-eyed to look at a watch, but it was late," Cuomo said at the news conference Thursday announcing the deal. Neither side would identify any of the sticking points.

But the deal wasn't closed Wednesday. The sides were back at the table Thursday morning and things were almost tidied up. At 11 a.m., the governor took everyone downstairs to lunch at Docks -- "to keep things light," an aide said.

"It was that close, but we needed a break," Simon said.

Cuomo ordered fish; Simon, a salad. MTA chief executive Thomas Prendergast, MTA negotiator Anita Miller and other union officials joined them in a back area of the restaurant, which continued to serve other customers.

At 12:07 p.m., another union emailed its members that a deal had been struck and the strike averted.

E.J. McMahon, a state government analyst at the Empire Center, a conservative think tank, noted that the two sides didn't seem that far apart. The union asked for 17 percent raises over six years; the MTA, 17 percent over seven. They settled for 6.5 years.

"It appears to have gone by script," McMahon said. "There clearly was not going to be a strike. I think what we saw in the last few weeks was a lot of theater."

But Simon said the length of the contract "was just one piece of the puzzle."

"There were a lot of moving parts," he said, adding that benefits and pensions also were at issue. Neither the unions nor the MTA spelled out how those issues were resolved, saying union members needed to be given the details first. A union source said new workers would pay into pensions for 15 years at the same rate as current workers and current workers would continue contributing for 10 years.

The governor said he stayed out of talks as long as it was necessary.

"If there is a crisis and I can be of help, then I believe that's my role," Cuomo said. "When we got to the point where we were last night, where we were on the cusp of an impending strike, which would have been highly problematic for Long Island, I believe that was the right time for the governor to step in."

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