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LIRR Contract Talks Break Down as Strike Deadline Looms

MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast
Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Thomas Prendergast, center, meets with members of Congress representing the New York City area, in Washington, D.C., on July 9, 2014. Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

July 14 (Bloomberg) -- Talks between New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Long Island Rail Road’s unions broke down today, setting up a possible strike next week that would shut the busiest U.S. commuter-rail system.

Service on the LIRR may begin to wind down as soon as July 16 because the railroad will need to secure its equipment before the shutdown, Anthony Simon, leader of the biggest group of LIRR workers, said today in an e-mail statement. LIRR employees say they will stop work July 20 at 12:01 a.m. unless they have a new contract.

“Negotiations have collapsed with MTA, and all eight unions are now proceeding with strike plans,” Simon said in the e-mail.

The MTA today rejected the unions’ counteroffer to the transit system’s most recent proposal because it doesn’t include enough changes to future employee benefits, MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast told reporters after meeting with union leaders. He said the local unions may be under pressure from international labor groups to make a stand against the state agency.

The strike looms as Governor Andrew Cuomo, a 56-year-old Democrat, prepares for a re-election bid. In 1994, when the governor’s father, Mario Cuomo, led New York state, the elder Cuomo used his power over the MTA to get it to accept union demands, ending a LIRR strike after two days in a pivotal election year.

Health Care

The MTA last month offered LIRR workers a 17 percent wage increase over seven years. The union was seeking 17 percent over six years, a position that was backed by two federal mediation boards.

To help pay for the increase in labor costs, the transit system wants current LIRR employees to contribute 2 percent of their salary to health insurance; they currently make no payments. New workers would direct 4 percent to health care and, unlike current employees, would contribute to their pensions after 10 years.

If the MTA were to accept the unions’ deal on their terms, “it would put additional pressure on both the fare increases that we have projected in the financial plan and pressure on funding the capital program, both of which are exceptionally important to the MTA,” Prendergast said.

Adam Lisberg, a spokesman for the MTA, disputed Simon’s forecast of when service might be affected, saying changes would most likely begin on July 19.

Unlike the MTA’s subway and bus workers, which reached agreement on a contract in April, LIRR employees are governed by the Railway Labor Act, a federal law that allows unions to strike under certain conditions.

LIRR workers make an average salary of $87,182, including overtime, according to the MTA. The railroad serves 300,000 riders each weekday.

To contact the reporters on this story: Michelle Kaske in New York at mkaske@bloomberg.net; Kelly Gilblom in New York at kgilblom@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net Mark Schoifet, Alan Goldstein

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