Long Island Rail Road Labor Talks Reach Heated Words Phase

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Long Island Rail Road workers will not be going on strike in March, as had been threatened. But workers could walk off their jobs on July 20th if talks with the MTA remain at an impasse.

That's when time runs out on a negotiation between the workers and the authority. Federal mediators have recommended the railroad's 6,000 employees receive a 2.5 percent wage increase over six years, retroactive to when the last contract expired in 2010. Mediators also called on workers to start contributing two percent of base pay to their health benefits.

But the MTA rejected that recommendation last month, to the chagrin of Anthony Simon, who chairs the United Transportation Union. "It's a modest increase, so I'm surprised," he said. "I'm surprised they find money for everything but the working men and women."

Simon spoke after a press conference on Friday at the downtown Brooklyn headquarters of the Transport Workers Union, where union officials took turns excoriating the MTA. Several speakers referred to a letter of support for the unions signed by twelve members of New York's Congressional delegation, which urged MTA management to "reconsider its decision to entirely reject" the proposals of an arbitration panel.

"The end game is near for the MTA," warned Transport Workers Union president John Samuelsen, who has vowed to rally his members in support of a strike by Long Island Rail Road workers, should it come to that. "A federal arbitration panel has ruled a fair contract for both parties. If the MTA doens't come through with the economic value of that contract, they will provoke a strike that will shut down Long Island and New York City."

At issue is whether the MTA, which has seen its finances improve with the recovering economy, could afford to pay for raises without corresponding changes to work rules. MTA chairman Tom Prendergast said in a reply to the letter from the New York Congress members that the authority needed cost-saving gains from work rule modifications before it could afford to boost salaries.

Prendergast further claimed that without such work rule changes, the arbitration panel itself has said raises for union employees would have to be paid for by some combination of "increasing fares even further than already planned, cutting capital spending, borrowing billions more, and reducing funding of retiree health benefits."

The MTA is planning a four percent hike in fares and tolls next year. But Prendergast has said granting wage increases could force the authority to bump those hikes up to 12 percent, raising base fares from $2.50 to $2.75 and unlimited monthly MetroCards from $112 to $125.

The two sides are in a 60-day "cooling off" period. But they plan to continue talks next week in Washington, DC.

Long Island Rail Road serves 83.4 million annual riders.