The seven unions that staff the Long Island Rail Road may delay their threatened strike from July ’til September. Though it’s gracious of the unions to pretend to care about ruining Long Island’s tourist season, there’s no justification for any strike. Gov. Cuomo shouldn’t bow to election-season extortion: Standing firm could help him with voters in New York and nationwide.
The state-run railroad, a part of the MTA, is stuck in a four-year-long dispute over wages, pensions and work rules.
The MTA wants to give the 5,850 union members an 11 percent raise over six years, similar to what the bigger subway and bus union got. The LIRR unions want 17 percent.
The MTA also wants to raise the retirement age for new workers by a year, to 63, and nearly double new workers’ pension contribution, to 5.2 percent of wages.
The bosses also want to change some work rules that drive up costs. But the unions want to be paid “appropriate value” for any such changes, which sort of defeats the point. (The two sides have agreed on LIRR workers paying a little toward health-care costs for the first time.)
Because the LIRR is a federal railroad, when the two sides can’t agree, they go to federal mediation.
Guess what? The federally appointed mediators have taken the unions’ side. The Obama folks think it’s OK for “working class” workers who make an average of $83,794 — plus enjoy pension and health benefits that normal people can only dream of — to get big raises without having to give anything back on pension benefits or work rules.
In fact, the mediators want to pad workers’ income even more — suggesting the LIRR offer a $10 payment per shift for conductors who are qualified, well, to do their jobs.
New figures publicized by the Empire Center’s SeeThroughNY.net point up that the LIRR crews are already getting a good deal:
- LIRR workers make, on average, more than workers at any other MTA division — 17.6 percent more a year than subway and bus workers.
- LIRR workers (not including management) made up 21 percent of the MTA’s top-paid employees — impressive, since they’re only 9 percent of the MTA workforce.
- LIRR folk made up 36 percent of MTA workers who at least doubled their base pay thanks to overtime.
- And 28 percent of LIRR workers — more than any other MTA division — made above $100,000 in 2013. That doesn’t include pension-benefits-for-life — benefits that a regular commuter would have to save $1.2 million in a retirement pot to guarantee.
That’s right: The average LIRR retiree is effectively a millionaire.
Still, the workers aren’t happy — and federal railroad law lets them (and Metro-North workers) strike (unlike other New York unions).
The MTA could use a strike to its advantage. The same law that lets workers strike also allows the LIRR to cram down work-rule changes without union permission in an impasse like we have now — something called “unilateral” implementation.
Fair’s fair — but playing tit for tat would require the governor to be tough during a strike that’s set to inconvenience moderate suburban voters just weeks before Election Day — something that takes, um, fortitude.
But does it, really?
Consider: Normal people are too busy to concern themselves with labor relations, but lots of folks have heard of the recent LIRR disability scam — when nearly everyone pretended to be disabled to retire early, leaving in their 50s, collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent benefits so they could hit the golf course early.
Plus, commuters come together — and support a strong leader — in a well-run crisis.
The LIRR could replace train service with bus caravans into New York (it’s already making plans to do so). It could set up staging areas at Citi Field in Queens and even in The Bronx to get people into the city center via the subways and Metro-North, similar to what the subway system did to replace downed service after Sandy.
The unions know full well that it would be easier for management to do this in the summer months, with school out and fewer commuters. Hence, the “generous” move to delay any strike ’til September.
Finally, the governor can consider: Who are union-friendly voters going to vote for? Rob Astorino, Cuomo’s Republican challenger, has made his name by blasting the way public-sector unions drive up New Yorkers’ cost of living.
And a strike could get some nice national attention: Remember Reagan and the air-traffic controllers.
Cuomo could benefit politically by standing up for the working folks who depend on the railroad to get to work — and, incidentally, pay for LIRR workers’ salaries and benefits.
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.
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