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Editorial: Only the MTA, unions can head off a strike

Long Island Rail Road union leaders, angered by

Long Island Rail Road union leaders, angered by the MTA's publicizing of its latest contract offer before formally discussing it with them, are considering not showing at a planned bargaining session Friday, June 27, 2014, the unions' lead negotiator said Wednesday. Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr., File

After yesterday's unproductive bargaining session with the Long Island Rail Road's unions, the MTA chairman has no choice but to go to Congress to find out whether it intends to intervene to head off a strike.

The unions have refused to budge after winning two favorable, but nonbinding deals, from federal mediation panels. Their conviction that Congress will do their bidding by imposing those contract terms has derailed the serious negotiations that need to take place.

If the unions' plan is to strike thinking Washington will come to their rescue, they're banking on a delusional strategy. The LIRR is governed by the federal Railway Labor Act, which makes it legal for them to strike and also allows Congress to theoretically step in and order a cooling-off period, set binding arbitration or dictate the terms of a settlement. It also could do nothing, which is the most probable course.

The tea party-infused Republican majority in the House of Representatives is not likely to derail a strike during an election year, in a very blue state with a Democratic governor, by handing public unions a 17 percent raise over six years recommended by mediators hand-picked by Democratic President Barack Obama.

If the international umbrella unions that represent workers mostly employed by private freight lines are selling their LIRR units this bill of goods, the locals should check for themselves. We couldn't find any support for intervention, or even much interest, in the nation's capital for the problems of a commuter rail line in downstate New York.

Congressional leaders should respond unambiguously to the letter MTA chairman Tom Prendergast sent Tuesday asking them what they intend to do. He is scheduled to meet with the Long Island delegation in Washington Wednesday.

And if the unions are so confident Congress will step in on their side, they should ask it to act right now, before Long Islanders have to suffer through a strike.

With just 11 days left before 5,400 of the LIRR's unionized workers can legally walk off the job, the MTA is planning for the worst by publicizing transportation alternatives in the event of a strike. But you can't replace the railroad, so the options will be limited. A job action will hurt our economy, snarl traffic and cause other miseries. Long Islanders who rely on the LIRR should have a plan of their own in place, one that they should never be forced to use. There's a deal to be made here. The sides are not that far apart.

The unions want raises totaling 17 percent over six years and have agreed to the first-ever employee contributions for health insurance. That's the plan the presidential mediators recommended. But what they've refused to accept is any changes in pension contributions or work rules.

MTA officials want a leaner pact with 17 percent raises spread over seven years, the health care contribution and concessions requiring future employees to work longer before reaching top pay and to contribute more for their health care and pensions. With a good-faith effort, they should be able to bridge the remaining divide.

The unions and the MTA need to keep talking until they do. Only they can settle this dispute. Help from Washington is a mirage.