MASSAPEQUA, N.Y. (AP) — More than 3,000 unionized Long Island Rail Road workers and their supporters rallied for a new contract Saturday, saying they wanted to send a message to transit officials and New York's governor ahead of a strike threatened for next month.
"The governor needs to step up, tell the MTA to wake up and extend this cooling off period, so we don't have a crushing blow to the economy of eastern Long Island," said the workers' chief negotiator, Anthony Simon.
The railroad's unions voted to authorize a strike July 20 after working without a contract since 2010. President Barack Obama appointed two emergency boards to help resolve the dispute but the state agency that runs the railroad, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, rejected both non-binding recommendations.
The emergency board's last proposal called for a 17 percent raise over six years while leaving work rules and pensions alone.
The MTA's last publicly disclosed proposal called for an 11 percent raise over 6 years and its chairman, Tom Prendergast indicated Friday that the agency recently floated a more generous offer.
"We have shown a great willingness to compromise. So far, the unions have not," MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said. "For six months their position has been: if they don't get 17 percent raises they will walk off the job and inflict a nightmare on Long Island."
Simon, of the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union, called the MTA's decisions to reject the emergency board's recommendations "absolutely crazy" and said he is hoping Gov. Andrew Cuomo will tell the agency to extend a "cooling off period" to allow the sides to negotiate until September.
Ten members of New York's congressional delegation sent a letter to the MTA this week urging the agency to accept the unions' offer to put off the strike for 60 days and avoid disrupting commutes for nearly 300,000 daily riders.
"They found this to be a reasonable offer and you're spitting in the face of Congress, who asked you to extend," Simon said.
Rep. Tim Bishop, who signed the letter and attended the rally, said it was unprecedented to ignore the presidential board's recommendations and questioned the practicality of refusing to extend the negotiating window.
"They're not looking for a giveaway, they're not looking for a handout, they just want to let the collective bargaining process work," the New York Democrat said. "The unions have made it very clear that they would accept the results of the (emergency board's) rulings. The MTA refuses to accept those. We've got to move forward here."
Lisberg said the unions chose the strike date — not the MTA — and were not being forced to walk off the job.
The MTA unveiled a strike contingency plan this week — including shuttle bus service from six of the railroad's 122 stations and carpooling lots at state parks and sports venues. Commuter advocates said the plan did not go far enough to make up for the capacity lost by idled trains.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said implementing the contingency plan, with little accommodation for people who normally travel by train from New York City to summer hotspots on the east end of Long Island, would be "devastating to the economy."
Lisberg conceded the railroad's contingency plan could not account for all the ways people use the service. He said the unions, with their strike threat, were at the "height of hypocrisy" blaming the MTA for the possible economic effects of a massive service disruption.
John Byrne, a railroad block operator from West Babylon, said workers have not gotten a raise since 2009.
"I have a wife and four children. I had to get a modification of my home loan to make it affordable," Byrne said. "All we want is a fair and reasonable raise. That's all we're asking for."