Home LIRR Prendergast turns to Congress, not Cuomo, as LIRR strike looms

Prendergast turns to Congress, not Cuomo, as LIRR strike looms

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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Patrick O'Hara July 9, 2014 - 12:11 am

This can actually be a blessing in disguise. With Cuomo backing out, this means that he is unlikely to swoop in in the eleventh hour and strong-arm the MTA into accepting a deal that is financially bad for them (since Cuomo can only effectively steer one side of the negotiations–the union leaders are not appointed to their positions by the Governor).

Duke July 9, 2014 - 1:52 am

SEPTA workers went on strike last month and Obama quickly ordered them back to work. It sounds, however, like executive action options have been exhausted with the UTU, so that means congress would have to act if the feds are to intervene.

Given that the house is currently controlled by the Republicans, who in turn are currently under the thumb of the tea party types, I don’t see that happening in any quick order. Especially considering most states and districts are unaffected by this specific issue, if it becomes an issue at all it is ripe for being a political football since it means consequence-free opportunity to score points.

Hell, could you imagine the aneurisms some of those tea party congressmen would have if they started scrutinizing LIRR work rules? Oh this could get fun to watch. Time to make some popcorn!

Nathanael July 9, 2014 - 1:24 pm

I really hope some of the Tea Party Republicans are intellectually honest enough to look at LIRR work rules and realize that this is the sort of thing they really want to change.

I doubt it, unfortunately; I’ve seen way too much intellectual dishonesty from too many of the Tea Party types. Bales of $100 bills vanishing in Iraq? No problem, they say.

But I hope some of them are actually principled enough to care. We can always hope.

Boris July 9, 2014 - 1:57 am

I don’t normally side with the Republicans, but on this one issue I’d love to see LIRR employees fired en masse, and new ones hired on reasonable terms.

Tom July 9, 2014 - 5:41 am

That is, in-effect, the same thing as a strike that would last a year

eo July 9, 2014 - 8:21 am

Firing everyone will not happen and there will be no year without the LIRR running. Most likely Congress will play political football for a couple of weeks and a solution will be found — I am not sure who will end up “losing”, the union or the MTA, but even the Republicans have no incentive to keep the issue going for too long as it will overwhelm the media channels (if it went for too long it will stop being important, but with elections so close, I would think that the threshold for action is lower). Also Congress does not need to allocate money for this, so the biggest sticking point of cutting the federal expenditures or no new taxes does not come in play.

Also one cannot really hire a new workforce for the LIRR in anything than 5 years. This is a railroad and there is a lot of know-how that one needs to run a railroad. No particular employee is very important, but as a whole one cannot replace them all at the same time and think that the new people would have any clue how to maintain an M-7 or the peculiarities around Penn and Harold.

BruceNY July 9, 2014 - 1:19 pm

Remember when President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers? That affected the entire nation (not just one suburban area), yet somehow it did the trick.

Nathanael July 9, 2014 - 1:28 pm

Meh, you could probably train furloughed Metro-North and Amtrak workers to run the LIRR in a lot less than 5 years. Metro-North knows how to maintain the M-7s and Amtrak understands Penn and Harold Interlockings. Would still take a while, of course, but less than 5 years.

Tom D July 9, 2014 - 7:54 am

If the 7 subway is extended to New Jersey as some have advocated, would the subway workers fall under federal law, too (no more “Taylor Law” banning subway strikes)?

eo July 9, 2014 - 8:25 am

I doubt it, most likely only 7 workers will be allowed to strike. In fact if it was to ever go to NJ the line will likely get a segregated set of equipment, workers and so on effectively becoming “PATH number 2” and will effectively decouple from the rest of the subways. At the very least NJ will need to pay some of the subsidies for the line (and for no other line), so segregation into a separate entity is likely.

BoerumHillScott July 9, 2014 - 9:01 am

“Federal Law” is a vague term, but in this context is matters because the LIRR is covered by the Railway Labor Act.

Crossing state lines does not place an agency under the Railway Labor Act.

BoerumBum July 9, 2014 - 9:59 am

Has there been any recent discussion around ceeding more lines to the subway system? (e.g. The Atlantic Branch is almost entirely inside NYC limits) Might be one way to ensure more effective running of the system: give it to an agency that runs more effectively.

Bolwerk July 9, 2014 - 11:08 am

Good idea, but who wants to run more effectively? Make a list of all the stakeholders, and think about what they’d want. Most either are hostile to running more effectively or don’t care.

Nathanael July 9, 2014 - 1:25 pm

The Nassau County politicos in particular have shown zero interest in more efficient operations. Outer Queens and Brooklyn voters are interested in more efficient operations, but they have no influence.

Larry Littefield July 9, 2014 - 12:04 pm

The bottom line is, the disability scandal shows the LIRR has been disrespecting the rest of us for decades. They are less productive than subway workers, and yet are paid more.

Still the MTA offered a bigger raise than the TWU got. And they still want more. And they want the subway and bus service in the city to be diminished to pay for it.

Under these circumstances, I find it disappointing that it’s only on blogs that you find people saying “go ahead and strike.”

For one thing, that 80,000 weekday riders is 20,000 cars with four people each in them. But some would work at home, or stay with people in the city, or stay in hotels.

The impact isn’t the same as a subway strike. NYC riders, most of whom don’t have cars, showed they could survive a subway strike in the cold at Christmas. Why can’t LIRR riders, who are far more affluent on average and do have cars, survive a railroad strike in July? Given what has gone on why are the workers threatening a strike and not the general public?

eo July 9, 2014 - 5:27 pm

You are right, but the affluent living in the suburbs are more politically connected and their voice gets heard much more than the voices of the city dwellers. Sad, but true …

johndmuller July 9, 2014 - 6:58 pm

As far as the current contract issues go, it would seem that there is a bit of posturing going on on the union side, presumably for internal purposes as the apparent sticking points with the contract seem relatively minor, only the extra year and some health care contributions, some of which would likely go away in a compromise. Certainly there was quite a bit of working without a contract, and a lot of bullying about net zero increases, so it is not too unreasonable for there to be some acting out in return.

I am really quite (at a loss for words apparently) about how fast the MTA went from holding the line on labor costs to giving a fairly generous package to Transit and an equally kind one to the LIRR. For that offer to be deemed offensive by the union is just the topping on the cake.

And all this goes on without anyone putting the (this one is just beyond words) LIRR work rules on the table is just ….. (Well, I can see why the RR might not want to open that Pandora’s box, but are we to believe that management likes the work rules???) These work rules and the horrendous cost overruns on ESA ought to be enough ammunition to knock back everyone’s wages (including that of MTA management) into the stone age yet they are swept under the carpet.

Larry Littlefield July 9, 2014 - 7:02 pm

That’s just it. It isn’t just the unionized workforce. It’s the management.

TWU guys have often said the real goldbricking is in the suburbs, but whenever they need savings they look to the subway. And they’ve got a point.

Another factor — perhaps the LIRR sees itself as transporting the thieves of Wall Street, entitling them to some thieving themselves. But that isn’t who is going to end up paying.

Larry Littlefield July 9, 2014 - 2:23 pm

Per the Times, “in June, the transportation authority said it had offered union leaders “everything that they’ve asked for,” with raises totaling 17 percent spread over seven years. (The authority had initially said it could afford no increases in net labor costs.) But the unions criticized the latest offer, noting that they had asked for 17 percent raises over six years and pointing to increased health care costs and other givebacks.”

So what, on behalf of riders and the general public, did whoever was negotiating on their behalf ask for?

To put the LIRR situation in perspective, read this and understand that no one is representing the serfs.


JJJJ July 10, 2014 - 9:50 am

NJ Transit has announced no fare hikes this fiscal year.

Good, fares are still too high, with the possible exception of the River line, which is $1.50 for an hour journey. To be fair, that fare is more for ridership building, and to acknowledge the poverty in that area.

pea-jay July 10, 2014 - 11:40 am

What’s the status on Metro North? Are there labor disputes looming there?

Patrick O'Hara July 11, 2014 - 12:08 am

Their contract negotiations are still ongoing (as are the negotiations with the LIRR engineers represented by the BLE), and they are also not getting very far. The BLE and the ACRE will hit their own impassess sometime soon and the process will likely repeat with each of them sometime soon.

‘Tis the season…

Nathanael July 11, 2014 - 3:10 pm

Metro North has the advantage of not having completely demented work rules.

There’s another thing.

The LIRR loves its glorious isolation and uncooperativeness with other agencies — but this also means it can be amputated, and doing so hurts *only* Long Island. There are 2.85 million people in Nassau and Suffolk, certainly… but…

A Metro-North dispatcher strike would get the attention of multiple states, by disrupting service to Boston and more; a LIRR strike won’t even get the attention of one state, because it *only* affects Long Island. Even the number of people within New York City who care is low because of the poor treatment of the LIRR towards the stations in Brooklyn and Queens.

LLQBTT July 10, 2014 - 1:20 pm

These guys should do quite well:


What the MTA could use is a little honest to goodness competition.

Larry Littlefield July 10, 2014 - 2:40 pm

Lest we forget.


It appears that as in the case of police officers and firefighters, the worse abuses were by older generations. And rather than challenge that, the MTA want another round of lower pay and benefits for future workers. Because that’s the way they all think.

Generation Greed.

Ryan July 12, 2014 - 9:20 pm

Personally, I’m hoping that the Tea Party Republican types take this opportunity to make another political grandstand and help the strike to happen. Frankly, I can’t wait for the LIRR to be shuttered – even if it’s for just one day.

In the words of Gordon Ramsey,



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