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Editorial: What MTA should seek in next LIRR talks

Lead Long Island Rail Road union negotiator Anthony

Lead Long Island Rail Road union negotiator Anthony Simon, left, shakes hands with MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast, right, after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announces a tentative deal averting a LIRR strike, on Thursday, July 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Bryan Smith

In averting a strike nobody wanted, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Rail Road's unions agreed to a deal that didn't give either side everything it wanted.

That's a pretty good sign that the tentative pact MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast, chief union negotiator Anthony Simon and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo ceremoniously signed on Thursday is as reasonable as possible given that two presidential mediation boards recommended a 17 percent pay raise.

The tentative deal, reached in the early morning hours on Thursday, will spread that raise over 61/2 years. But the sticky issue that stretched these negotiations uncomfortably close to the Sunday strike deadline was how to pay for them. It does that by requiring a first-ever employee contribution for health coverage of 2 percent. New hires will contribute to their pensions for 15 years rather than 10, as current workers do, and new employees will need to spend more years on the job to reach top pay.

Beyond that, details of the agreement remained sketchy. That's to allow union officials time to brief their members in anticipation of ratification votes sometime before Aug 15. But the cost of the pact wasn't revealed either, which makes it impossible to immediately tally the pluses and minuses.

The good news for riders -- other than no strike -- is that, according to MTA officials, train fares won't have to be raised to cover the pay hikes.

In addition, the first-ever health care contribution and different, less costly, terms of employment for new hires are important institutional shifts that should generate long-term savings for the LIRR. These changes must not be eroded in negotiations for future contracts.

Unfortunately, there are important things the MTA didn't get.

The LIRR is still covered by the federal Railway Labor Act, which gives the railroad's unionized workers the right to strike. New York City's subway and bus workers are covered by the state's Taylor Law, which bars them from walking off the job. LIRR workers should be, too. LIRR labor negotiations should be strictly a local affair.

Costly work rules also survived the negotiations untouched. For example, the MTA is required to bring enough workers into its Richmond Hill repair shop, on overtime if necessary, to fill every shift, even when there is no work for them to do. And it has to pay conductors four hours of overtime when they work in both passenger service and yard service during the same shift. There may have been good reasons for such rules in the distant past, but not anymore.

The unions have been without a contract since 2010, so yesterday's 61/2-year deal will expire Dec. 16, 2016. When the MTA begins bargaining with them for the next contract in as soon as 18 months, those fundamental issues should dominate the agenda.

More reasonable work rules are essential to actually contain the costs borne by riders and taxpayers, many of whom don't have wages and benefits as generous as those they fund for LIRR workers. And eliminating the federal role in these negotiations is the only way to make sure Long Island won't be held hostage again and again by the threat of a rail strike.

But thankfully, for now, they're still working on the railroad.


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