NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — With a Long Island Rail Road strike potentially set to start Sunday, the unions and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority returned to the bargaining table Wednesday and talked for several hours without reaching a deal.
But both sides were set to work through the night remotely as they went off to hotels, and were set to return to the bargaining table at 9 a.m. Thursday.
“I am happy we will be back in a room together. I am happy we will have communication all night long, and that’s all I can say as far as optimism,” said United Transportation Union President Anthony Simon, the chief negotiator for LIRR’s unions.
“We remain committed to reaching a fair and reasonable solution at the bargaining table, and we’re committed to doing whatever it takes to negotiate to make that happen,” added MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg.
There were few details as both sides emerged from an afternoon of talks, CBS 2’s Jessica Schneider reported.
As CBS 2’s Marcia Kramer reported, Gov. Andrew Cuomo received the credit for getting the LIRR talks back on track in the first place Wednesday, in an effort to keep the strike from ever going ahead.
“The governor is the person who called us to the table. And obviously, we all know, if the governor of the state of New York tells you to come to the table, you come to the table,” Simon said earlier in the day. “But we as the labor leaders never wanted to leave the table. Getting the MTA to the table is what he did.”
Indeed, at Cuomo’s orders, MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast — the governor’s handpicked man to head the transit organization — returned in person to the talks at a law office in Times Square a full 45 minutes before the unions.
It was unclear whether Prendergast had a new offer to put before the unions, or if he came with concessions engineered by the governor himself.
“I can’t speculate on what they’re going to bring to the table, but if their offer is an offer that we can discuss, that will move the ball forward, and we will have continuous conversations,” Simon said.
After a few hours, Prendergast left the negotiations. But talks continued until the early evening hours.
“They’re upstairs. They’re negotiating,” Lisberg told reporters, including WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell. “I can’t give you any details, but I think it’s a good sign that they’re at the table talking.”
The reason Prendergast left early was “because he has an MTA to run,” Lisberg said.
Cuomo said in a statement released Wednesday, “We must do everything we can to prevent Long Islanders from being held hostage by a strike.”
“The Long Island Rail Road is a critical transportation system for Long Island and New York City,” he said. “Both the MTA and the LIRR unions need to put the interests of New Yorkers first by returning to the table today and working continuously to avoid a strike.”
Cuomo previously had taken a back seat in the talks and said he would not get involved, but he was beginning to feel constituent pressure — and this is, of course, an election year.
“The governor is standing on the sidelines, you know. There’s 300,000 commuters looking for leadership from Gov. Cuomo, and, you know, if you’re not going to provide the leadership and a strike happens, there will be 300,000 who will be singing ‘Astorino for governor,’” said LIRR rider Jim Campbell of West Babylon.
The unions have been working without a contract since 2010.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday morning, the MTA launched a newspaper and radio campaign attacking the unions and saying of their demands, “When is enough, enough?”
“They make almost $90,000 a year, get free healthcare and generous pensions,” the radio ad says. “The MTA offered to up their salary 17 percent.”
The ads infuriated the unions.
“The ad campaign that the MTA launched was an absolute disgrace. You’re spending millions of dollars to beat up your own employees who are running the system when you could have spent that money at the bargaining table,” Simon said.
The unions also issued an open letter Wednesday morning, which at that point suggested that a strike was inevitable.
“We deeply regret that MTA’s irresponsible actions will cause a strike beginning this weekend,” said the letter, which was signed by Simon. “The unions representing Long Island workers have done all in our power to reach a reasonable settlement in four years of bargaining.”
The union accused the MTA of posturing by claiming that it could not afford the settlement the union has in mind without raising fares – arguing that the MTA would not have approved of the state taking back $49 million in revenues that the MTA did not need, and that MTA managers would “stop their own windfall benefits, like free lifetime medical coverage,” if the agency were struggling financially.
“MTA has refused every compromise. It has decided a strike is its best course. It refuses to delay the strike past the summer season so vital to the Long Island economy,” the letter said. “Yet, while telling the press it doesn’t want congressional intervention, MTA has been on Capitol Hill begging for a delay until December. At MTA, politics matters, people don’t.”
The letter also claimed the MTA wanted to change the Railway Labor Act, and “they believe they can achieve that by provoking a strike.”
Riders said they just want a solution.
“I think they’re being selfish about what’s going on; the need to bend,” said Leo Bellamy of Amityville.
“It’s disgraceful that both sides are not talking and they’re acting like petulant children,” Campbell added. “They should be in a room working on this.”
“It’s going to be devastating, very bad for commuters like me and other people — we have nowhere to go,” said rider Ingrid Gonsalves of Arden Heights, Staten Island.
As 1010 WINS’ Roger Stern reported, Mark Epstein of the LIRR Commuter Council said passengers desperately want a settlement — but a settlement they can afford.
“We urge them — really — no more fare hikes to cover for it,” he said.
In a statement Monday, LIRR unions said service could begin to wind down as early as Wednesday as the railroad secures its equipment in preparations for the possible strike.
But Simon clarified that point, saying there would be no reduction in service Wednesday.
“The Long Island Rail Road is already starting to secure some of its yards, nothing to do with service,” Simon said. “They’re starting to move some equipment around, as far as track equipment, to lock down equipment, and that’s just a safety issue.”
Unions have been readying their picket signs for a possible walk out of 5,400 workers starting at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. Strike captains are being told that every member must be on the picket line.
“I did tell my members, be prepared for at least a month, a month of a strike and, hopefully, that doesn’t happen,” said IBEW Local 589 general chairman Richard Sanchez.
The main sticking point seems to be whether future LIRR employees would have to contribute to pensions and health insurance.
“Make no mistake — working for the LIRR is a good job,” Lisberg said Tuesday. “You pay nothing for your health plan and you get two pensions. We’re offering them a 17 percent raise, a very modest 2 percent contribution to paying for health care. For new employees, you pay 4 percent to health care and you’d have to contribute to your pension for your whole career, not just the first 10 years.”
But Simon has said the MTA wants to “cripple the new employees” and said the agency rejected the unions’ counteroffer with no new proposal.
If a deal isn’t reached by the July 20 deadline, the MTA has put a contingency plan in place. Options for commuters include shuttle buses, ferries and car pools, but officials are also urging people to telecommute if possible.
For more on the MTA’s contingency plan, click here.
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