It’s been a few weeks since Presidential Emergency Board recommended a series of wage increases for the Long Island Rail Road’s United Transportation Union workers, and the MTA has come back with a resounding response to the non-binding suggestions. Setting the stage for a summer of labor unrest, the MTA will not grant the raises to UTU Local 645.
For the MTA, this is a risky, if necessary, move to keep the budget and the dream of net-zeroes in tact. It should lead to a permissible strike, and the MTA is gambling that Long Islanders will allow their support of getting to work quickly and easily trump their support of labor unions. It could also foreshadow how the MTA plans to address the TWU’s ongoing contractual situation.
Pete Donohue offers up this take in today’s Daily News:
MTA Labor Relations Director Anita Miller notified the National Mediation Board that the authority would not enact a contract settlement for the commuter railroad that was crafted by an independent panel. The move prompted an angry response from a top union leader representing LIRR workers, who have labored without a contract since 2010. “If a strike occurs, it’s the sole responsibility of the MTA for being unwilling to accept the results,” said Anthony Simon, general chairman of the United Transportation Union. “It’s not a matter of them being unable to pay. It’s a matter of them not wanting to pay.”
Simon’s union is one of eight representing LIRR workers that are involved in the labor showdown with MTA brass. The MTA, meanwhile, all but accused the unions of being indifferent to the possibility that the raises sought would necessarily result in fares being increased to levels higher than that which the authority has already planned.
Federal law says commuter railroad workers can legally walk off the job if a contract deal is not reached after a lengthy process involving negotiations, mediation and mandatory “cooling off” periods. That process is expected to be played out by this summer.
As Donohue details, the MTA’s beef with the PEB decision is as much over what it doesn’t contain as it is over what it does contain. While it required higher union contributions to benefits, it did not include work rule reform which the MTA has repeatedly said is key to its net-zero plans and is also key to future improvements in its operating model.
Meanwhile, in rejecting the raises, the MTA also played to the fears of its riders. Miller told the feds that union officials have no issues with the LIRR passengers paying significantly more for service. One union rep reportedly told the PEB, “The passengers have had a good run at the MTA, and it is about time the fares went up.” Fares have not always tracked inflation.
The path to a strike is a slow one with mandatory cooling periods and enforced negotiations on tap first, but the MTA seems to recognize that a strike may be the only way for it to get what it wants. You can be sure, too, that the TWU is watching as well. They don’t have the right to strike under New York State law, but they’ll push for whatever favorable outcome the UTU can draw out from the MTA. That contract is worth far more in current dollars and future savings, and right now, the UTU fight is a proxy for the larger war with riders and fares serving as the battlegrounds.