Home LIRR On Long Island, slowly inching toward a strike

On Long Island, slowly inching toward a strike

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Larry Littlefield January 16, 2014 - 7:30 am

The TWU and LIRR situations are completely different. In the latter, the public should be going out on strike.

At least the TWU has basically done the job in recent decades. And lots of the non-work that took place in the past is gone. Meanwhile, the LIRR had that big scandal, one that is indicative of much else.

Larry Littlefield January 16, 2014 - 9:23 am

I wrote a post comparing the LIRR (specifically East Side Access) to Shoreham after your East Side Access post here. Long Island can’t afford this anymore. And as for Long Island draining us to pay for it, the Long Island legislator plan, forget it.


lawhawk January 16, 2014 - 10:59 am

Interesting posting Larry. What needs to be emphasized about ESA is that all the agencies involved there are all ostensibly under the MTA umbrella and yet they’re still operating as independent fiefdoms.

That applies to personnel moves/decisions and contractual matters too.

The MTA needs a shakeup just as badly as the PANYNJ does, and that means finally integrating the separate rail agencies under one banner and ending the parochialism where Long Islanders think that they’re losing something by gaining access to the East Side (namely slots to Penn Station) and ignore what they gain in the process – quicker access to a huge swath of Manhattan.

Reorganizing the MTA would also go a long way to rationalizing the service at NYP/GCT and improve access to Midtown.

Nathanael January 17, 2014 - 12:01 am

Which workers does the UTU represent at the LIRR?

Unlike at NYC Transit, where the TWU represents everyone, the LIRR has lots of separate unions who feud with each other, a relic of its history as a steam railway. I’m not quite clear which workers the UTU represents. Is it the conductors? If so, the MTA can arguably do without them ENTIRELY.

Bolwerk January 17, 2014 - 12:23 pm

http://www.smartunionlirr.com/ – this page is not very informative, but it looks like UTU is just conductors going by other UTU locals’ pages.

For other LIRR unions I found:

http://www.blet269.com/ (engineers only?)

http://brslocal56.tripod.com/ (communications and signals)

Union pages all look like they were created by a 15-year-old in 1996.

I think the LIRR could probably do without conductors if given a few years to adjust. It’s not something that can happen overnight. And the CTU probably knows that.

Nathanael January 18, 2014 - 10:14 pm

Comms & signals are crucial. Engineers are still needed for now. Conductors… well, I wouldn’t say no to one per train…

The multiple “unions” are one of the reasons the commuter railroads have severe problems with work rules.

At NYC Transit, management can at least theoretically offer to retrain all the conductors, ticket agents, etc. to do other jobs — to be added motormen or station attendants or whatever, for expanded customer service, at the same or better salary.

But at the LIRR, retraining them to do a different job would put them in a *different union*. And of course the UTU will fight against *that*.

This is one reason railroads, and other industries with “craft unions”, have had severe problems with featherbedding over the decades: when an entire craft becomes obsolete, the union which deals only with that craft fights tooth and nail to avoid reassigning the workers to anything else in order to maintain its “turf”.

At shops with “industrial unions” (covering the entire company) like NYC Transit, the *single* union is usually much more amenable to reassignment of workers, since it doesn’t reduce its turf. (The TWU local at NYC Transit has been exceptionally bad about this, but that may be because they can’t believe that there will actually be new jobs for the displaced conductors.)

anon_coward January 16, 2014 - 9:09 am

ironically, i don’t think that automation of ticket collecting will work either. all the platforms are different sizes and different cars open their doors so its not like they can get away with a 2 person crew like on the subway

Larry Littlefield January 16, 2014 - 9:26 am

They’d go with a single access point for the platform, electric eyes or cameras to make sure people don’t get up on the platform from elsewhere, cameras to view people don’t swipe or tap, roving bands of enforcement personnel, and draconian fines.

The average LIRR commuter is richer than the average subway rider. A day in the lockup being processed for an arrest would be a significant deterrent, and they would have enough money to pay those draconian fines.

Eric F January 16, 2014 - 9:31 am

“They’d go with a single access point for the platform”

The platforms are enormous. Not sure how that would work, either practically or aesthetically. Another complication is that people are not necessarily all going to the same end point. Most people are going to Penn, but if I can get platform access at Great Neck by buying a ticket from Great Neck to Little Neck, even though I’m going to Penn, what’s to stop me from doing that?

anon January 16, 2014 - 1:07 pm

Random checks at penn with the possibility of spending your day in jail instead of at the office and then a $500 fine.

anon_coward January 16, 2014 - 1:14 pm

how do you know where people got on the train? unless you check on the train people can buy tickets for a cheaper zone if there is only one check at Penn.

I used to get by with a single peak ticket for a few days at forest hills because if you get on in the 4th car people always walk back to the rear cars. a lot of times they used to not check tickets and so i would get a few rides on a peak ticket to Penn and just take the subway back

pea-jay January 16, 2014 - 10:18 pm

Use the parking garage lost ticket philosophy and with a more modern fare media, charge everyone full fare for the most number of zones and then credit back at the end of the journey. You can bet that if riders had to tap in and then tap out to make sure they were not over charged they would. You wouldn’t even need turnstiles at Penn, just a lot of tap stations all over the place.

anon_coward January 17, 2014 - 12:32 pm

and how would you do this with a cash purchase?

Nathanael January 17, 2014 - 12:03 am

Apart from the madness at Penn Station, it’s pretty easy to gate the platforms on the LIRR.

These aren’t grade-level platforms; on the “surface stations” they’re five feet high, and often they’re elevated or in rock cuts. Occasionally in tunnels.

anon_coward January 16, 2014 - 9:35 am

what i meant was that on a lot of trains only a few cars will open their doors on the smaller stations. at forest hills its the first 4 cars. other stations its the last 4 cars or whatever.

Eric F January 16, 2014 - 9:46 am

Of course then you may need multiple conductors to coordinate the openings and hustle people who invariably at the wrong side of the platform onto the train. The multiple platform access points allows for a nice benefit: mainly dispersion of small parking lots and access points so that a given town in not overwhelmed by mass boardings at one focal point or one big desirable parking lot. Some stations in built up areas are more or less “stealth” park and ride facilities with many dispersed parking lots and drop off points leading to the large platforms, each tying into separate local streets.

lawhawk January 16, 2014 - 11:02 am

We have that on NJ Transit’s Bergen line. Several stations are incapable of operating full-length trains, including Garfield, Broadway and several others have to block the crossing street to give all passengers the ability to embark/disembark.

Local trains will have conductors making regular announcements on which cars will have open doors – as well as which are high/low platforms (as the Bergen Line has several stops that don’t have the high-level platforms, and others have only limited distance ones.

Staffing on those trains is typically just two conductors plus the engineer for a 6 car train.

anon_coward January 16, 2014 - 11:22 am

i don’t take the LIRR that often, but i think they are at a conductor for every 2 cars. maybe every 3 or 4 on the trains with less local stops

anon_coward January 16, 2014 - 11:26 am

would they have to get rid of the zoned fares this way? unless they check they ticket at exit how would they know if i got on at say pinelawn instead of garden city?

anon January 16, 2014 - 1:12 pm

Random checks at all stations. Not everyday. Cameras to figure out where people aren’t paying. Then staff cops there for a day or two to check tickets. If you didn’t pay you get taken to the side for a bit. They check your ID. They write your name, down take your picture, copy your license and give you a $300 fine first offence. Second offence you get arrested, call it a misdemeanor, and spend the day in jail.

anon_coward January 16, 2014 - 1:16 pm

you can do this now without spending the money on the cameras

use less conductors per train which may result in less ticket checks but still the same effect as random checks

Larry Littlefield January 16, 2014 - 3:51 pm

They could allow exit taps with tap and go technology.

Bolwerk January 16, 2014 - 11:17 am

Neither turnstiles nor POP care what size the platform is or how big the crew is.

anon_coward January 16, 2014 - 11:19 am


Bolwerk January 16, 2014 - 12:25 pm

Why would they?

anon_coward January 16, 2014 - 12:55 pm

my whole point was that tech won’t help lower manpower costs like on the subway because every station seems to be a different size, all the trains are different sizes and different combinations of cars open their doors on different stations

Bolwerk January 16, 2014 - 5:01 pm

The tech used with turnstiles is a mix of turnstiles and fencing. For POP, you pseudo-randomly check passengers. You don’t need to check them all.

Kevin Walsh January 16, 2014 - 10:59 am

“The passengers have had a good run at the MTA, and it is about time the fares went up.”

The LIRR has had at least two recent increases. The public is not an ATM.

Or is it?

lawhawk January 16, 2014 - 11:04 am

No faster way to antagonize the commuting public than to have the union claim that the public is a piggy bank. Commuters will understand higher costs if it means improved service (more service) or other improvements (to keep trains running, have more frequent trains, and/or fewer disruptions).

Larry Littlefield January 16, 2014 - 11:25 am

What the union is referring to is fares falling hugely relative to inflation from 1995 to 2002 in NYC. They have been going up more than inflation since. Plus:

1) The fare cuts, like the pension increases, the loss of general funds for the capital plan, and soaring capital charges were all funded by debts. As a result there is no money for more capital spending, most of which is really maintenance.

2) The average person in NYC has seen their pay fall relative to inflation for the past five years. The average person in younger generations earns much less than those in older generations did at the same age, and has fewer retirement benefits. These declines have worked their way up the educational scale. Now even the one percent is getting less, if for no other reason than there is less around to steal.

Woodwind January 16, 2014 - 5:05 pm


Are you insinuating that unions are merely a special interest focused only on its members to the detriment of the public at large? YOU LIE!

The unions like to think they are entitled to extract more public monies, and MTA leaders have no real incentive to fight back, since most top administrators last under a decade in office, and have no personal skin in the game. We’ve seen how this play ends before.

Rob January 16, 2014 - 3:03 pm

if history is a guide, mta will cave in the end.


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