NY: Cuomo Signals He'll Stay Out of LIRR-MTA Contract Dispute

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signaled Monday that he is not stepping into the contract fight between the MTA and the unions representing 5,400 Long Island Rail Road workers, saying Congress is better suited to break the stalemate if a strike occurs in less than two weeks.

Union officials and state lawmakers have for weeks urged the governor to intervene and help broker a deal in the four-year labor clash, as he did with Transport Workers Union subway employees in May. But Cuomo indicated Monday that he doesn't believe it's his place.

"Normally, if this was a normal contract -- the TWU contract, I got involved, I sat down with the parties, etc. -- . . . This is different," Cuomo said. "This is federal law, and if the union goes on strike, it goes to the Congress, and the Congress basically resolves the strike . . . Unless, we hear differently from the Congress, in many ways, they're going to make a determination."

At the urging of TWU leaders, Cuomo helped broker the contract that gave 34,000 city subway and bus workers 11 percent raises over five years, and new benefits, including free LIRR rides. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, at the time, was pushing for a three-year wage freeze.

Subway workers' contracts are governed by the state Taylor Law, which prohibits public employees from striking. LIRR workers' contracts are governed by the federal Railway Labor Act, which permits strikes after negotiation and mediation are exhausted.

Sen. Jack Martins, one of seven Republican state senators who asked Cuomo to intervene, Monday chided Cuomo for "punting to a gridlocked Congress."

"Regardless of Congress' jurisdiction, the MTA is a state-funded authority whose chairman is hand-picked by the governor. The LIRR's employees and riders are New Yorkers; they need their governor's leadership," Martins said in a statement. "He must at least try to bring both sides together before saying he can't."

Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) have said there's no guarantee that a Republican-controlled House of Representatives will intervene to help resolve a labor dispute in a Democratic state.

MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast has said he believes unions plan to strike with the expectation that after one or two days, Congress would intervene and impose the contract recommended by two White House-appointed mediation panels.

Lead LIRR union negotiator Anthony Simon, who has neither confirmed nor denied that hoping for congressional intervention is his game plan, said Monday he would welcome Cuomo's involvement.

"If the governor calls me, I'll be in his office in 10 seconds, anywhere he wants me to go," said Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union.

Prendergast also has said that even if Cuomo agreed to give in to the union's demands to avert a strike, the MTA Board would not necessarily go along with an agreement it considered fiscally irresponsible.

"Make no mistake about it: We're an independent board," Prendergast said. "And we need to take action."

Cuomo's decision to stay on the sidelines further removes hope to avert a strike. MTA and union negotiators have agreed to meet Tuesday before the National Mediation Board, but neither have expressed optimism for a fruitful discourse.

"Whether or not Long Islanders suffer a traffic nightmare is, unfortunately, entirely in the hands of the unions," MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said Monday. "We hope they show up tomorrow willing to negotiate."

Railway law expert Frank Wilner, a former White House-appointed chief of staff at the Surface Transportation Board and retired United Transportation Union spokesman, said that while the labor dispute is regulated federally, Cuomo could help resolve it before it even went before Congress.

"I would say Cuomo is probably ducking it for political reasons, [choosing to] throw it on the lap of Congress," said Wilner, adding that neither side should put its fate in federal lawmakers' hands. "It's a crapshoot. Generally, neither party is overly happy with a settlement imposed by Congress."

Unions say the MTA should respect the findings of the mediation boards that both called for a six-year contract with net raises totaling 17 percent, first-ever employee health care cost contributions, and no changes to work rules or pensions.

The MTA, saying the recommended deal would be overly burdensome financially, has proposed spreading out the 17 percent raises over seven years, and helping fund them through concessions by future workers, including by increasing employee health care and pension contributions, and doubling wage-progression schedules.

Union officials disclosed Monday that after the MTA last month rejected a proposal to delay the July strike deadline until September, unions proposed a shorter 30-day extension to Aug. 19. Arthur Maratea, national vice president of the Transportation Communication Union, said the offer aimed to address the MTA's concerns that a September strike would affect more commuters than one in the summer, while also helping protect Long Island's tourism economy.

Maratea said the MTA rejected the offer because Congress would be out of session in August and not available to act in the event of a strike.

The MTA did not comment on the union's offer Monday.

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