NY: LIRR Unions Make Counteroffer, but Fail to Reach Deal with MTA

Negotiators for the Long Island Rail Road unions and the MTA said yesterday labor leaders made a counteroffer to the agency's latest contract proposal and would continue talks after failing to reach a deal to head off a strike in 10 days.

"We had a very lengthy discussion. They came and made a formal counteroffer, which we discussed," MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said, after five hours of negotiations in Manhattan. "We've got more discussion to have with them."

He did not take reporters' questions.

Anthony Simon, head negotiator for the unions representing 5,400 employees, provided no details on the counteroffer. Both sides said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will review the plan and would continue talks.

No date has been set for future negotiations, Simon said.

Despite some progress, Simon said the strike deadline is still on the table.

"Right now we still have a 12:01 deadline; unfortunately, we're not [at an agreement] yet," he said. "We have agreed to meet, we agreed to stay at the table and discuss."

Prendergast attended the meeting with the agency's chief labor negotiator, Anita Miller, at the urging of congressional members. At a meeting with Prendergast Wednesday in Washington, they demanded that both sides return to the bargaining table, and that the LIRR unions make the counteroffer.

It's the second time this week that the sides have met seeking a compromise that would avert a strike that could shut down the nation's largest commuter railroad.

The MTA and eight unions representing 5,400 LIRR workers remain deadlocked in a four-year-long contract dispute. If they don't reach an agreement by July 20, workers could stage a strike.

The unions have called for the MTA to adhere to recommendations of two independent mediation boards appointed by the White House, which both called for a six-year contract with net raises totaling 17 percent, first-time employee health care contributions and no changes to work rules or pensions.

The MTA's latest offer, which the agency made public on June 24, would give 5,400 Long Island Rail Road workers 17 percent raises spread over seven years, provided that the unions make major concessions on wages and benefits for future employees.

Under the MTA's proposal, any LIRR employees hired after the contract is ratified would have to work twice as many years as current employees do now to achieve top pay. And, they would contribute 4 percent of weekly wages to health care costs — or twice as much as previously hired workers — and would have to permanently contribute toward their pensions. Current LIRR workers only do so their first 10 years.

Simon, the union negotiator, has said the total value of the MTA's seven-year contract offer is worth 44 percent of the total value of the six-year pact recommended by the two Presidential Emergency Boards. The percentage, he said, was calculated by the unions' economist. Because the wage increase would be spread out over an extra year, Simon said the proposal essentially asks workers to give up a year of raises altogether.

The unions have made a counteroffer, but have not publicly disclosed the details, Simon indicated the unions aim to work within the amount the MTA has said it can afford — about $40 million annually.

If Congress chose to intervene, it could extend the "cooling-off period," pushing back the strike deadline by weeks or months; order both sides to go before a third party, which would hand down a new contract; impose the recommendations of the two Presidential Emergency Boards and give the unions the contract they have demanded; come up with its own contract on which union members could not vote; or opt to stay out of the dispute.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo — who helped broker the Transport Workers Union contract that gave 34,000 New York City subway and bus workers 11 percent raises over five years and new benefits — said Monday he is not stepping into the contract fight between the MTA and the unions. Cuomo said Congress is better suited to break the stalemate if a strike occurs in less than two weeks.

But Cuomo shifted his stance Wednesday, thanking Congress for "making it abundantly clear that the only path to resolution is at the bargaining table between the MTA and the unions."

Meanwhile, as the possibility of a strike looms, local officials have begun to make contingency plans.

North Hempstead Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth announced Thursday a plan that includes opening up free parking at 1,000 spaces in North Hempstead Beach Park, 175 West Shore Rd. in Port Washington, for those who wish to carpool, and providing up to 300 spaces at town facilities at iPark, 1305 Union Tpke. in New Hyde Park, enabling commuters to catch bus service along Union Turnpike. Commuters can also use iPark for carpooling.

Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano and officials from the Applied Science Foundation for Homeland Security (ASFHS) and the Long Island Forum for Technology (LIFT) said they will announce plans to open a temporary telecommuting office at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage at a news conference Friday at 11 a.m.

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