Hoping to avert a labor strike scheduled to begin this weekend, mass transit officials and union representatives in New York City agreed Wednesday to resume negotiations in an ongoing dispute over employee health insurance and pension contributions.
Labor unions representing more than 5,000 employees of the Long Island Rail Road Co. say they're prepared to walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday unless a new collective bargaining agreement is reached with the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which owns the LIRR. The labor unions have been without a contract with the MTA since 2010.
Negotiations all but collapsed earlier this week, primarily due to disagreements over current and future employees' minimum contributions to their group health care premiums and defined benefit pension plans.
MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast on Wednesday disclosed the agency's most recent contract offer to the unions in an open letter to customers.
In addition to conceding the 17% wage increase for LIRR employees that union negotiators have been pressing for since last year, Mr. Prendergast said the only proposed change to the LIRR's pension plan would be a new rule requiring all future railroad employees to contribute to their pensions throughout their employment with the railroad.
The MTA previously had proposed a series of much more drastic changes to the railroad's pension plan benefits for new hires, including significant increases to the plan's minimum contribution levels, final average salary formula, minimum years of service for vesting and minimum retirement age.
The agency also has proposed a minimum health insurance premium contribution level for current LIRR employees of 2% of base pay, one-quarter of a percent lower than what the unions proposed in their most recent contract offer. LIRR employees currently do not pay any portion of their group health care premiums.
However, Mr. Prendergast said in his letter that “any new agreement must be affordable not just today, but also into the future, without jeopardizing the investments necessary to maintain the service we provide our riders or placing additional pressure on future fares.”
To that end, Mr. Prendergast said, the MTA has proposed to set health insurance contribution levels for future hires at 4% of base pay.
In May, an emergency board of federal mediators tasked by the Obama administration to intervene in the protracted dispute determined that the contract terms proposed by the LIRR employee labor unions — which included health care premium contributions of up to 2.25% of base pay for current and future employees, but no substantive changes to the rail road's pension plan — was the most reasonable solution.
New York governor urges action
The Long Island Rail Road carries an average of more than 285,000 riders per day between New York City and the Long Island suburbs, according to the MTA's website. An analysis released Tuesday by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli indicated that a shutdown of the LIRR could cause as much as $50 million in economic damages per day.
Late Wednesday morning, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged the two sides to return to the bargaining table as soon as possible, and remain there for as long as it takes to prevent a strike.
“We must do everything we can to prevent Long Islanders from being held hostage by a strike that would damage the regional economy and be highly disruptive for commuters,” Mr. Cuomo said in the statement.
Shortly after Mr. Cuomo's statement was released, the MTA announced it had invited the LIRR employee unions to resume talks. A spokesman for the labor unions confirmed that they had accepted the invitation.
The labor unions participating in the negotiations include the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen; the Independent Railway Supervisors Association International; the International Association of Machinists & Aerospace Workers; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers/Service Employees International Union; Transportation Communications International Union; and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers.
Collectively, the unions represent approximately 5,400 of the LIRR's 6,414 total employees, according to the MTA.