As the dog days of summer descend upon us, the threat of an LIRR strike any time beginning in 11 days looms larger and larger. While the MTA brass and LIRR unions met on Tuesday, the sessions lasted only around four hours, and the MTA is looking not to Albany but to Washington for help.
It’s interesting to see the buck pass from Andrew Cuomo, up for reelection, to Congress, a deeply unpopular, highly partisan federal agency. As the LIRR is overseen by the feds though, Cuomo can punt. Whether voters will recognize this in November will depend upon the outcome. Earlier this week, though, while speaking with reporters, Cuomo, who was willing to take the credit for bridging Transit’s and the TWU’s labor impasse, effectively punted on the LIRR. WNYC offered up this transcript:
“It’s actually Congress that can end a strike and impose a settlement one way or the other,” Cuomo said on Monday. “So right now it seems that Congress is pivotal to what happens here, and from what I read in the newspapers it’s going to depend on what Congress intends to do and what they say they’re going to do. Congress can order them to go back, Congress can order a settlement, Congress can order mediation, Congress can order arbitration, Congress can do almost whatever they want, because they are in control of the resolution of the strike.
“The possibility of a strike causes so much anxiety I don’t even like to think about it. There is no good alternative to the LIRR on Long Island. The commute would be horrendous, however we do it. And they talk about contingency plans — we’ll have buses, we’ll have carpools — and you can do all of the above; it is still a miserable situation. So I have said to both parties: I truly hope it doesn’t get to that point. If it does get to that point, I hope Congress acts immediately to resolve it, and resolves it in a prudent way. But that they resolve it.”
Small comfort to the people of Long Island, but MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast, clearly at the behest of his boss in Albany, has asked Congress to assist. He’s traveling to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to discuss the situation with lawmakers and sent a letter ahead of his arrival to Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi asking Congress to do something. He wrote:
I am writing to you to seek clarification on what role Congress intends to play in the event that 5,400 employees of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) walk off the job as early as Sunday, July 20th and paralyze the nation’s largest regional economy. Tomorrow I will be traveling to Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress on the MTA’s position and request a clear answer on whether the United States Congress is prepared to take action if LIRR’s unions decide to stage a strike.
Over the past several months the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has made a number of attempts to settle a labor dispute with unions representing LIRR’s employees. As Chairman of the MTA, I strongly believe that a resolution can be reached in a fiscally responsible manner; unfortunately, the union’s leadership has taken the position that the MTA must meet its demands or it will strike, a threat they feel comfortable making because they assume Congress will stop their strike after a few days.
As you may know, the MTA’s negotiations with the LIRR’s unions are governed by the federal Railway Labor Act (RLA), which gives commuter railroad employees the right to strike, which is a right that no other public employee in the State of New York has. Once LIRR employees walk off the job, absent a settlement, it will require an act of Congress to bring these employees back to work. The MTA will continue to push for a resolution that does not overly burden our passengers; however, we believe that the union’s leadership has made a tactical decision that Congress will intervene on their behalf in the event of a strike. As a result, the union’s leadership has been unwilling to work constructively with the MTA to come to an agreement.
Prendergast has presented Congress with three options — prevent a strike, allow a strike and require settlement sometime later, or allow a strike and take no action — and wants to know which one will be the likely outcome. It’s a move designed to put pressure on Washington and gain clarity into a situation that will likely not be resolved without outside influence.
It’s hard to read the tea leaves right now, but Congress doesn’t do much passing of resolutions these days. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a strike, and to that end, it’s not clear how the region will be affected. It won’t be pretty, and one way or another we’ll find out soon enough how this story ends.