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Editorial: Don't derail commuters

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

As a July 20 strike looms, the MTA has made a new contract offer that significantly narrows the gap separating it and the Long Island Rail Road's unions. Unfortunately, the unions haven't budged. And in a pique that the MTA went public with its latest offer, the unions threatened not to show up at Friday's bargaining session.

That would be a mistake. Both sides need to show good faith on behalf of the hundreds of thousands of riders who would be forced to scramble for the limited alternate transportation that would be available if the railroad is shut down. Keep negotiating.

Going public was an MTA strategy to rally the public to its side by demonstrating it's doing what it can to reach a reasonable deal in the face of what it sees as union intransigence. If that assessment takes root among Long Island commuters, many of whom have seen their own wages stagnate and their benefits decrease in recent years, the MTA would gain more leverage. Unlike Transit Authority unions and many uniformed services, LIRR workers are governed by the federal Railway Labor Act, which means they can strike without penalty. Only Congress can order them back to work.

And it's that larger national picture that could mean trouble for Long Island. The bigger international unions representing more than 1 million workers across the United States and Canada -- many on private freight lines -- want LIRR workers to hold strong lest their contract set a pattern for the others. But that's not what's best for our region. The LIRR's 5,400 workers in eight unions have been without a labor agreement for four years: that's too long. But the rolling scandal of greedy railroad retirees convicted of fraudulently taking disability pensions has soured the public on rail workers who have salaries and benefits beyond those of many of the taxpayers and commuters who pay their wages.

LIRR workers earn $85,000 a year on average, contribute to their generous, defined-benefit pensions only during the first 10 years on the job, and pay nothing for health care coverage.

That's a good deal that's about to get even better. The MTA's latest offer includes the 17 percent pay raises the unions are seeking, although over seven years rather than six. It would provide a new $10-per-shift payment to federally certified conductors and $5 a shift for other workers, and calls for a first-ever employee contribution for health insurance of 2 percent that's a bit less than the 2.25 percent the unions offered.

In exchange -- but only for new employees -- the MTA is seeking increased pension contributions, a 4 percent contribution toward health coverage and agreement to double the time on the job necessary to reach top pay.

Concessions of that sort for the "unborn" -- those yet to be hired -- are fairly common in public-sector labor agreements as a way to make pay increases affordable over the long term. MTA officials said they will have to redirect money from capital projects to help cover the cost of any LIRR deal. We can't postpone infrastructure maintenance and new services any longer.

LIRR union members shouldn't risk overplaying their hand. They should find common ground with the MTA and keep trains running.