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MTA chief pens letter to LIRR riders; No new talks scheduled ahead of strike

Josh Einiger reports from Penn Station.
No new negotiations are scheduled between the MTA brass and unions representing Long Island Rail Road workers after talks broke off Monday following just a few minutes of discussions. All eight unions are proceeding with strike plans for Sunday.

New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli on Tuesday estimated a potential strike could cause up to $50 million in lost economic activity each day.

"A LIRR strike would cause headaches and financial hardships for riders and businesses," he said. "It would also be another devastating blow to a region that is still struggling to recover from Superstorm Sandy and the recession. Both sides must go the extra mile to reach a reasonable settlement so we can avoid the costly impact of a strike and the millions of dollars in lost economic activity."

The projection is based on LIRR ridership information as well as census and economic data. DiNapoli's office regularly examines and reports on the finances of the MTA and its affiliates, including the LIRR.

DiNapoli said that about 300,000 riders rely on the railroad every day when traveling between Long Island and New York City, and within Long Island for work and other activities, such as shopping and tourism.

Any adverse impact on tourism would also affect sales tax receipts, an important revenue source for local governments.

On Tuesday, the unions' general chairman sat next to a telephone that didn't ring, while MTA officials held a series of meetings in Manhattan.

The Suffolk County rail yards were largely empty. But without a settlement, they will begin to fill up just as they did before the strike in 1994. That process would begin later in the week.

From OJ Simpson and his white Bronco, to the Rangers run-up to the cup, a lot was going in June of 1994.

Read more about life back in 1994 compared to now

Dennis Ronan remembers something else altogether.

"It got to the point where I told my employer you better put me up somewhere or I'm going to shoot myself," said Ronan, a Williston Park resident.

"It's the American way. Whether we win it or we lose it, we have to fight it out," a striking LIRR worker said back in 1994.

That was the last time the LIRR's workers walked off the job; paralyzing the nation's busiest commuter railroad.

"For your safety we are admitting only a certain number of people at a time," a worker said back in 1994.

And though back then the hairstyles were different and cops wore different uniforms, the contingency plan was nearly identical.

Buses carried commuters to jam packed subway stations and a world of pain.

Tuesday, the union printed up new strike signs as the chief negotiator hoped Governor Cuomo would step in.

"I'm going to be optimistic that maybe he can come in and save the day," said Anthony Simon, the chief union negotiator.

Last time, it was a different Governor Cuomo, Mario, who forced the MTA to back down three days into the strike.

But 20 years, later his son Andrew doesn't seem inclined to follow suit.

"Hurricane Sandy was a disaster. We've gone through other disasters. This is not a disaster. A real pain maybe, but not a disaster," Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

But compared to 1994, the economy is so much weaker today.

And after four decades of commuting, Dennis Ronan has learned his lesson.

"If history is a teacher and I think it is, I'm glad that they're putting me up somewhere. Just wish everybody else the best because they're going to need it if there is a strike," Ronan said.

Members of Long Island's congressional delegation say the talks need to resume.

"We were extremely disappointed to learn that the MTA left negotiations yesterday without presenting their own counter offer," said the statement from Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), and Rep. Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.). "Both sides need to do their part to keep negotiations moving forward rather than settling in for a stalemate."

On Tuesday, MTA chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast penned an open letter to LIRR customers stating the MTA's side of things. Here is the text of that letter:

Long Island Rail Road union leaders have threatened to strike as early as Sunday, July 20th.

The MTA remains committed to settling this matter quickly, but any new agreement must be affordable not just today, but also into the future, without jeopardizing the investments necessary to maintain the service we provide our riders or placing additional pressure on future fares.

In the most recent MTA offer, a current LIRR employee would receive:
  • A 17 percent wage increase over seven years

  • An average $22,000 retroactive payment

  • Healthcare contributions of just 2 percent of base salary

  • No changes to pension contributions

  • No changes to work rules


  • To afford this offer, the MTA asks that future LIRR employees:
  • Contribute 4 percent to healthcare

  • Contribute to their pensions throughout their career as an LIRR employee

  • Work more years to reach top pay


  • Under this plan, both existing and new LIRR employees will remain the highest paid commuter railroad workers in the country, and with the best pension in the industry.

    A strike would have a devastating impact. It's time to have productive negotiations to resolve our differences and return to what we all do best together - serving our LIRR customers.

    Sincerely,

    Thomas F. Prendergast

    In contrast, the union places all the blame on the MTA.

    "It is absolutely regrettable to say that we have come to a complete impasse," chief union negotiator Anthony Simon said Monday. "The MTA has not come with a counteroffer at all and is not moving. So at this point, the unions are going to head east and prepare our membership and their families for the unfortunate possibility of a strike."

    Negotiators had arrived for the first face-to-face talks in three days. Although both sides were said to be close, that quickly deteriorated as time runs short to avoid a general strike on the nation's largest commuter railroad. Simon placed the blame firmly on the MTA, after officials rejected a counter proposal the unions submitted last week without presenting another counter offer.

    "The MTA is causing this," he said. "There is no way, shape or form that the unions want to do this...This is not the way we negotiate...This is absolutely absurd...We are disgusted, we are appalled, we are going to do what we can until the very last minute to prevent this from happening."

    Prendergast commented on the talks at MTA headquarters in Manhattan, saying there is a wide disparity between management and unions.

    "There truly is a gulf, there's a long distance between the offer that we have on the table and their willingness and ability to be able to respond to that and close the gap," he said. "In the spirit of negotiations, it's give and take. We've done giving. They've done taking. But they haven't moved at all, slightly, very smally from their position."

    He said the MTA wants new employees to contribute to health care and pension costs, which the union has balked at that.

    "It would put additional pressure on both the fare increases that we have projected in the financial plan and pressure on funding of the capital program," Prendergast said. "Both of which are exceptionally important to the MTA.

    Prendergast says that despite union pronouncements of an impending strike, the MTA is leaving open the possibility of future talks.

    On Friday, officials issued a detailed strike contingency plan.



    Last week, Congress told Prendergast that federal lawmakers will not get involved in what they say should be a state matter. Members of the New York delegation were blunt, telling Pendergast that he should be negotiating around the clock to reach a settlement before the July 20 deadline.

    Gov. Andrew Cuomo is also calling for intense negotiations now that Congress has stepped back from imposing a deal.

    He called the LIRR dispute on Tuesday "a major negotiation."

    "Long Island households do not have any additional funds to pay for an increase in fares," he said. "So the M.T.A. is saying, we want to hold the line on fares and we need to run the railroad, so we're working within a budget, and the union is saying we need additional funds. You want to be fair to the union, you want want to be fair to the workforce, you also want to be fair to the riders of the LIRR."

    The New York congressional delegation said that "Congress is not an option" in the impasse.

    MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast meets with Reps. Peter King, Steve Israel of Suffolk County, Tim Bishop, Carolyn Maloney and Charles Rangel of Manhattan and Grace Meng of Queens. (Photo by N.J. Burkett)

    "For people to count on them to act quickly and resolve this, you've heard from the congressmen and women themselves about the likelihood of that happening," Prendergast said. "So we need to stay at the table and negotiate this."

    The MTA accuses union negotiators of dragging their feet in the talks, even to the point of forcing a strike in the hopes that Congress would step in, an accusation the unions have angrily denied.

    Prendergast had sent a letter to the leaders of Congress asking whether they intend to intervene, as the eight unions representing 5,400 employees have threatened to walk off the job. Only Congress has the authority to prevent those unions from paralyzing the nation's largest regional economy.

    Cuomo cannot by law directly intervene if there is a strike, but he said that the message from Congress could help to end the impasse.

    "The unions' false belief that Congress would step in to mandate a settlement was a major impediment to any real progress," Cuomo said. "With this obstacle removed, it is now clear that the only path to resolution is at the bargaining table between the MTA and the unions, and they should proceed in good faith."

    Federal mediators had agreed to join the talks and hope to avoid a strike by the unions, which want a 17 percent raise over six years while leaving work rules and pensions alone.

    The MTA offered that hike over seven years and wants workers to pay more of their health care costs. Currently, LIRR workers don't contribute toward their health insurance.

    MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg says the union is stonewalling.

    "I think most people on Long Island, if your kids just cross their arms and stomp their feet and say, 'I want what I want, or I'm not going to do anything,' you tell them to go take a time out in the corner," he said. "And that's what they are doing to everyone on Long Island."

    "The best alternative is not to try to commute, because the roads are going to be swamped," Lisberg said. "It's going to take at least twice as long to get anywhere. It's going to be a nightmare."

    The railroad's unions voted to authorize a strike after working without a contract since 2010. President Obama appointed two emergency boards to help resolve the dispute, but the MTA rejected both non-binding recommendations.

    The MTA is already alerting the more than 330,000 riders a day that a strike is possible.

    The MTA strike contingency plan is on its web site: http://bit.ly/1ojqipX

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