Politics & Policy

Strike Date Nears for LIRR

(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The busiest railroad in North America’s unions continue to threaten to strike, and could do so very soon.

Ongoing negotiations between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Long Island Rail Road unions have yet to produce a deal, with the possibility of a strike on July 20 still looming.

The MTA and the unions representing the LIRR’s 5,000 employees have for months failed to agree on a new labor agreement for LIRR workers, with pension and health benefits for new employees being the hot-button issues.

On Thursday, MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast, MTA labor-relations director Anita Miller, and union negotiator Anthony Simon met to try to reach an agreement. The LIRR unions made a counteroffer to the MTA, but still no deal was made.

Simon told the New York Post that though the groups had a good dialogue, a strike is still possible.

“They’re looking over our counterproposal, and we are going to further discuss,” he said.

The MTA is offering workers a 17 percent raise over the next seven years, but also wants to require employees to contribute 2 percent of their pay toward health-care costs. New employees would pay 4 percent for health care. Currently, workers do not pay for any of their health costs.

On the other side, the unions want the 17 percent raise over six years, and for their health-insurance rules to be left alone.

The LIRR is the largest commuter-rail system in the U.S., and a strike would leave its more than 300,000 daily riders without their usual means of transportation. Though both sides have agreed that they do not want a strike, both also charge that their opponents are not committed to productive negotiations.

“If they had negotiated in good faith prior to this where we are today, we probably could’ve gotten an agreement,” Ricardo Sanchez of the Electrical Workers Union told WCBS 880.

But MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg says the unions do not want to compromise.

“They haven’t budged their position in six months. That’s no way to negotiate,” he told CBS. “I think if they care about the people on Long Island, they should be willing to negotiate.”

Prendergast concurred with Lisberg about the unions’ obstinacy. “We’ve moved substantially from day one,” he said. “We’ve had four different moves; the union hasn’t.”

The requirement that employees pay 4 percent of their health-care costs would apply only to new workers. But Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute explained that from the perspective of the unions, there will be less support for the old benefits as new workers join over time.

Gelinas told National Review that from the MTA perspective, the health-care concession is a financial imperative, as its costs continually increase.

“As with any negotiation, you settle somewhere in the middle,” Stephen Smith, a writer for Market Urbanism, said in an email to National Review. “MTA wants the status quo; the unions want the status quo with more money/benefits.”

Unions for New York’s subways and buses are subject to the Taylor Law, which prohibits the state’s public employees from striking. The LIRR, however, does not have to comply with said law as it is protected by the federal Railway Labor Act. The RLA allows strikes over major disputes once the union has exhausted the law’s negotiation and mediation procedures.

The protections granted by the RLA, Gelinas explained, were designed for when workers for private railroads were treated poorly. “These are publicly subsidized commuter railroads,” she said. “We ought to be changing the federal labor acts so that the state can control this.”

In so far as he has the legal power to prevent a strike, New York governor Andrew Cuomo has a difficult role in the ordeal. He stated publicly earlier this week that “a strike is just not an option and would be a terrible failure by both the unions and the MTA.”

Gelinas thinks that this statement puts the MTA in a “very bad position.” Even though it is technically an independent authority, she says that the MTA will not allow a strike if it’s very clear that Cuomo does not want one, which is clearly the case. Since the unions “haven’t had a compromising posture,” she said, the MTA may have to cave in to their demands in order to prevent a strike.  

Smith gave his own perspective on the governor’s position. “Cuomo just seems to want the MTA to resolve its problems quietly, damn the fiscal consequences, and leave him alone,” he said.

The governor sent Prendergast to Washington on Wednesday to see if Congress would become involved in the negotiation process. But Congress told Prendergast that they would not become involved in what they consider should be a state matter.

“We are demanding that both the MTA and the unions negotiate and get this solved quickly,” Representative Steve Israel (D., N.Y.) said.

Cuomo said in an emailed statement that he sent Prendergast in order to prove to the unions that Congress would not assist them.

“The unions’ false belief that Congress would step in to mandate a settlement was a major impediment to any real progress,” he said. “It is now clear that the only path to resolution is at the bargaining table.”

If the situation does result in a strike, the MTA will need an emergency option for its commuters. Its website already is publicizing the potential strike, warning commuters to expect “roadways to be extremely congested and usual commute times to be significantly longer.” It lists six alternative options, including taking vacation time, working from home, and staying with family in the city.

“The public doesn’t pay a lot of attention until it happens,” Gelinas said. If the strike does indeed occur, the public will not see the unions and the MTA as separate forces opposed to one another, but as “one corrupt, incompetent entity.” “They’ll end up blaming the MTA and the governor.”

Molly Wharton is an intern at National Review. 

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