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Newsday - No Deal for LIRR Unions; MTA to Seek Congress' Help

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By: Alfonso Castillo & Chau Lam

MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast, after another federally mediated bargaining session failed to budge his agency or Long Island Rail Road unions, said he wants to meet with House and Senate leaders Wednesday and determine whether Congress will act if 5,400 railway workers walk off the job in 11 days.

LIRR union officials said they were willing to continue talking Tuesday with Metropolitan Transportation Authority negotiators before the National Mediation Board until a deal was made. However, after meeting less than four hours in Manhattan, MTA negotiators said it became clear a settlement could not be reached.

"Nothing is going to happen at the table here clearly, based on what happened today, and that's why we're going to Congress," MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said after the talks.

Before the negotiation, Prendergast began making plans to go to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional members and "seek clarification on what role Congress intends to play in the event" of a July 20 strike, according to a letter he sent to federal lawmakers.

The letter was addressed to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).

An aide to McConnell said yesterday that he saw the letter but did not know of any request for a meeting from Prendergast. Reid's office had no comment, and House leaders could not be reached for comment.

The MTA has accused the unions of being determined to strike, with the expectation that Congress would agree to their contractual demands to end a work stoppage affecting 180,000 daily commuters.

Lisberg declined to detail what went on during yesterday's negotiation session, overseen by the three-member mediation board, but indicated both sides stuck with their most recent settlement offers.

"The offer we made two weeks ago is our standing offer," Lisberg said. "The proposal that the unions have put forward has not changed in six months."

Lead union negotiator Anthony Simon called Lisberg's assertion a "bold-faced lie," noting the previous round of talks ended with the unions making a counter offer and the MTA shooting it down. Although Prendergast said Friday the MTA's current proposal was not "a take-it-or-leave-it" proposition, the agency did not bring a new offer Tuesday.

Outside the Times Square law offices where yesterday's negotiations were held, Simon, general chairman of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, disputed that the unions' strategy is to force Congress' hand, saying labor leaders were willing "to sleep here" to hammer out an agreement.

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 pact with net raises totaling 17 percent, first-time employee health care contributions and no changes to work rules or pensions.

The MTA wants to spread the 17 percent raises over seven years and also demands several concessions from future workers, including health care contributions twice the amount of current workers, doubling the time it takes to reach top pay, and having them permanently contribute toward pensions. Most current workers contribute for 10 years.

Although the unions have not detailed their latest counteroffer, Simon indicated it aims to work within the amount the MTA has said it can afford -- about $40 million annually.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) Tuesday encouraged the MTA to keep talking to the unions, not federal lawmakers.

"These guys should be spending more time at the table than trying to position themselves as far as Congress is concerned," said King, who heard from Prendergast Monday about arranging a meeting.

King, who will host the MTA chairman Wednesday along with Rep. Charles Rangel (D-Manhattan), said he and other members of New York's delegation won't likely tell both sides what they intend to do or give them "an out" from negotiating a settlement.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) agreed that depending on congressional action is the wrong course, "considering that there's no promise that the House Republican Majority will take up the issue at all."

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday indicated he would not get involved in the dispute because it is a federal matter -- despite calls from state lawmakers and union leaders for his help in brokering a deal.

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.

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) said he would favor acting to ensure that "the economy of Long Island would be allowed to continue to function and that the negotiations continue."

Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, (D-N.Y.) in a joint statement Tuesday, also encouraged the MTA, unions and the state to work together to avoid a strike "that would be devastating for Long Island."


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