NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Long Island Rail Road union negotiators returned to the bargaining table Tuesday, but failed to end their stalemate as a possible strike looms later this month.
The first talks between the two sides in a week broke off in the afternoon. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority then announced its chairman, Tom Prendergast, will travel to Washington on Wednesday to ask Congress what its intentions are if an agreement is not reached by the July 20 deadline.
“Since the unions don’t seem to be willing to negotiate a settlement at the table here, the only people who have the ability to step in and prevent a strike from paralyzing Long Island are the ones in Congress,” MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said.
In a letter to congressional leaders on Tuesday, Prendergast said he understands lawmakers have three options: pass a resolution calling for the deadline to be extended, allow a strike to proceed and then pass a resolution ending it after a period of time, or take no action.
“(U)nfortunately, the union’s leadership has taken the position that the MTA must meet its demands or it will strike, a threat they feel comfortable making because they assume Congress will stop their strike after a few days,” Prendergast wrote in the letter.
But Anthony Simon of the United Transportation Union said Prendergast’s trip is unnecessary.
“We are not looking for congressional intervention; we are looking for a reasonable offer. We didn’t see the MTA chairman today. We hope the MTA chairman comes to the next meeting,” Simon said. “We are available 24/7. We are ready. We will sleep here. And the MTA is not willing to budge off of their offer.”
The union and the MTA have been far apart for months, failing to agree despite two separate proposals by a presidential mediation board. The sticking point seems to be pension and health benefits for new employees. Federal mediators attended Tuesday’s negotiations.
On his way into the talks in Times Square, LIRR union representative Christopher Natale told WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond: “I’m not very optimistic at this point, to be honest with you, especially after the governor’s statement this morning.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he has no plans to intervene, saying it may be up to Congress to settle the dispute because railroads are under federal jurisdiction.
The MTA has offered workers a 17 percent raise over seven years, but would require them to pay toward health care costs. Currently, LIRR workers don’t contribute toward their health insurance at all.
“It was over seven years, not over six years,” Natale said. “And there was so many concessions to new employees, we just in good faith could not do it.”
The union has made a counteroffer, but the details of its proposal have not been released. Union leaders have blasted the MTA for making the details of their proposal public.
As CBS 2’s Dave Carlin reported, the lack of news from the bargaining table has some LIRR workers feeling strikebound.
“We haven’t striked since 1994. It’s definitely something we don’t want to do,” Joseph Baretta said.
Key players on both sides told CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer a resolution may hinge on whether Republican House Speaker John Boehner wants to intervene and help a Democratic governor in an election year.
“I think the governor can tell the MTA what to do and tell them that it’s time to prevent the strike,” Simon said.
Both sides charge the other is not negotiating in good faith, but agree a strike would be bad for the LIRR’s 300,000 daily riders.
“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’s Peter Haskell.
“In this day and age when everyone is getting cut, we have to stand together and make sure people are making a living wage,” said Michael Cordiello, head of the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Lisberg said the unions don’t want to compromise.
“They haven’t budged their position in six months. That’s no way to negotiate,” he said. “I think if they care about the people on Long Island, they should be willing to negotiate.”
But Simon said his workers live on Long Island.
“We feed the economy,” he said. “We do not want to hurt the same economy that we feed.”
In the event of a strike, the MTA has said the agency plans to have shuttle buses bring a percentage of riders to Queens, where they could catch a subway train to Manhattan.
Town of Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine called the bus plan flawed and said if there is a strike, there will only be two locations for commuters to catch buses — in Deer Park and Ronkokoma.
He said the Ronkokoma station is packed with commuters on a normal day.
“Imagine you telling everyone east of Ronkonkoma this is the station you come to if you want to take a bus,” he told WCBS 880’s Sophia Hall. “Right now, 17,000 people a day use Ronkonkoma. If you packed 50 people in a bus, that is 340 buses.”
He said the four other stations should also have bus service if there is a strike.
But a plan to use shuttle buses could be undone by the possibility that union bus drivers won’t cross a picket line.
Lisberg has said the best bet might be to avoid commuting altogether.
“The best thing that you can do is try not to commute,” he said. “If you can telecommute, if you can work with your bosses, if you can take a vacation that week, that’s a great alternative. There’s a limit to how much we can do. There are not enough buses or lanes in the world to make up for the Long Island Rain Road.”
The LIRR Commuter Council said its riders need a game plan now, CBS 2’s Carolyn Gusoff reported.
“Should they buy a monthly ticket? What will be the fare? Will they be reimbursed? There will be an influx of cars into the city, what will be the city’s restrictions?” Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said.
Epstein is urging the state to create a strike website with vital information.
“The least expensive and most important commodity to riders is information and that commodity is being horded and not shared with those who need it,” Epstein said.
Meanwhile, commuters are pleading with both sides to reach an agreement.
“If there’s a strike, it would really be a big mess,” commuter Jennifer Jones James said. “They should think about us because we’re the people who pay the fare for them to keep running. They should consider us and not consider themselves.”
“This is an opportunity to come together and reach an agreement,” commuter David Sprankle said. “So get together guys, it’s not hard.”
LIRR employees have been working without a contract since 2010.
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