The Transport Workers United Local 100 hosted a hearing for legislators and the media Friday at its downtown Brooklyn headquarters, where several labor leaders spoke out against the MTA.
Among those to speak at the hearing were General Chairman of the United Transportation Union Anthony Simon and TWU 100 President John Samuelsen, both of whom cast blame for the possibility of a strike on the LIRR’s unwillingness to compromise.
“We understand the significance of this strike and the impact that this potential strike could have on the entire downstate area,” Simon said. “We also want folks to know that if and when this strike occurs in July, it is occurring because of the irrational and illogical labor relations mentality of the MTA in downstate New York.”
The MTA sees the dispute through a different lens, however. MTA representative Adam Lisberg fired back at Simon’s claim in a Monday afternoon phone call, saying “there’s an obvious contradiction” in the union’s placement of blame for the impending strike wholly on the MTA’s unwillingness to negotiate.
“Our financial plan is fragile, but it is balanced on a budget that is built on the concept of the three net zeros,” Lisberg said. “As long as they’re able to be paid for by changes to work rules and health care contributions, then we can use those savings to generate raises.”
MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast, in a letter to elected officials responding to a letter in which they urge him to consider taking a more collaborative stance at the negotiation table, told the officials he shares their concern.
“Balancing the sometimes conflicting demands between those who deliver public services and those who pay for them is one of the most difficult all of us in government share,” Prendergast wrote.
Unionized LIRR workers have been laboring without a contract since May 28, 2010.
While unions began filing applications with the National Mediation Board pursuant to the Railway Labor Act as early as September 2010, it wasn’t until March 2013 that all labor unions had filed for arbitration, according to the Dec. 21, 2013 Report to the President by Emergency Board No. 244.
“Following applications for mediation, all parties worked with NMB and NMB leadership in an effort to reach agreements,” the report reads. “Various proposals for settlement were submitted, discussed and rejected.”
Once NMB arbitration was declined by all parties, the LIRR requested a Presidential Emergency Review Board to investigate the dispute and issue a report recommending action on Nov. 18, 2013. In the hearings that followed, the report says, labor demands include a six-year agreement – beginning in 2010 when the last contract period came to a close – with 3 percent wage increases per year for the first five years and a 3.5 percent increase in the sixth.
Other demands from LIRR employees include no changes to current pension benefits, healthcare contributions, retirement health benefits or the extension of certification pay – a $10 per day allotment for all certified conductors.
The LIRR is also calling for a five-year agreement with “net zero” increases in pay for the three-year period that has already elapsed and 2 percent increases for the two-year period yet to come. LIRR also wants to see certification pay be pulled from existing work rules, though it does not want to see this pay extended to all employees.
Additionally, the LIRR believes employees should have to begin contributing – for the first time – to their own health insurance plans.
The final findings of the PERB report indicate that work rule changes proposed by the LIRR are unacceptable and GWI increases should be more modest than those proposed by the unions. The board also agrees with the LIRR’s belief that its employees should begin to contribute to their health insurance plans.
“Remember, these are the highest-paid commuter railroad employees in the nation and they pay nothing for health insurance now,” Lisberg said to this point. “I think, for most of our customers out there, it seems reasonable to say that in order to get raises, they should be willing to pay some modest healthcare contributions like most of their customers do.”
Still, the report does not agree with an assertion made by the LIRR that net zero increases are an appropriate means of forcing employees to share the budgetary burden.
According to National Transportation Communications Union Vice President Joel Parker, who has served as a mediator for several PERB proceedings in the past, the MTA’s rejection of the findings of the board are unprecedented, as all railway industry disputes to come before the board in the past found the results to be actionable.
Samuelsen of the TWU 100 ended the Friday hearing by putting the impetus for action on the MTA and the LIRR.
“The endgame has approached for the MTA, their choices are very limited,” Samuelsen said. “Arbitration panel after arbitration panel has ruled against them; in this case a federal arbitration panel has ruled a fair contract for both parties. If they do not accept the terms of that contract, if they do not come through with the economic value of that contract, they will provoke a strike that’s going to shut down Long Island and New York City.”
As it stands, unless the unions and the LIRR are able to come to a contractual understanding by July 21, LIRR workers are prepared to strike, and according to New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento, they won’t be standing alone.
“Let me make this very clear,” said Cilento. “The unions and the members represented here today will have the full resources and support of the entire labor movement in this state, from Buffalo to Brooklyn to Long Island.”