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Editorial: New LIRR contract looks tougher

Passengers on the 7:14 p.m. LIRR train to

Passengers on the 7:14 p.m. LIRR train to Great Neck pile in through the doorway to their train during rush hour out of Manhattan's Penn Station on July 2, 2012. Credit: Nancy Borowick

A presidential mediation board's decision to reject the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's proposed contract with Long Island Rail Road workers in favor of a richer union submission is disturbingly detached from local reality.

In a vacuum there is nothing preposterous about the union's bid for a 17 percent pay raise over six years, especially because it includes a first-ever employee contribution to health insurance that would reach 2.25 percent in June 2015. The White House-appointed board called that "a reasonable balance addressing the priorities of both parties."

But context matters.

Many of the LIRR's riders and state taxpayers who pay the bills have endured stagnant wages for decades. And they've witnessed the sorry spectacle of 33 LIRR retirees, doctors and consultants being convicted of greedily defrauding the railroad's generous pension system, with few landing behind bars.

Just last week former conductor Christopher Parlante avoided jail for fraudulently claiming that knee problems and chronic neck, back and hand pain made it impossible for him to work when he retired in 2004. A federal judge allowed him to repay $294,717 bilked from the retirement system at a rate of $25 a month. Parlante, 61, would have to live to be 1,043 years old for the debt to be completely repaid. After seeing deals like that, the public has good reason to feel fleeced. Public sentiment has shifted away from the workers.

Against that backdrop, the federal board's nonbinding selection of the unions' contract offer is amazingly tone deaf.

While a previous board accepted the same union plan in December, the MTA should have had more leverage this time around. Last week members of Local 100 of the Transit Workers Union, which represents city subway and bus workers, ratified a pact with the MTA calling for 8 percent raises over five years. The MTA's proposal to the second presidential board for LIRR pay raises of 11 percent over six years was patterned after that deal.

But the board chided the MTA for an offer that "follows the form but not the substance of the deal it entered into with Local 100." It said the cost of the two deals is significantly different for workers -- for example, on health insurance and pensions -- a conclusion MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast disputed. The board also criticized the MTA for including substantial issues in its final offer that had not been costed out or previously broached with the unions. The MTA shouldn't have left the door open to that criticism.

Now it will be tougher to get a deal. The LIRR's 5,500 unionized employees have gone four years without a contract. They could strike as of July 20, but it shouldn't get to that.

The unions should make good on their commitment to the mediation board to negotiate work rules. The way to cover the cost of pay raises beyond those the MTA offered is to abandon wasteful mandates, such as four hours of overtime pay for conductors if they work in both passenger service and rail-yard service during the same regular shift. Or perhaps eliminating rules that require the railroad to bring in workers, on overtime if necessary, to fill every shift at its Richmond Hill repair shop, even when there's no work to do.

The goal here is clear: an honest day's work for a fair wage.