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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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LIRR Unions Get Big Boost From Obama Panel

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) made a strategic mistake recently when it said that its planned 2015 fare hike may be reduced to four percent from 7.5 percent.

In essence, the MTA, the Long Island Rail Road’s (LIRR) parent, was announcing it’ll forgo an estimated $200 million in fare box revenue in 2015, given the MTA’s improved financial standing. The MTA conveyed this message as the LIRR was telling an emergency presidential panel, in early December, that the LIRR could only give the bulk of its unionized employees a cumulative general wage increase (GWI) of four percent over a five-year period, dating back to 2010 and extending into 2014. Meanwhile, advocates for most of the LIRR’s unions, representing about 5,500 of the LIRR’s approximately 6,400 employees, were trying to convince this panel its members deserved a GWI of 18.5 percent over a six-year period (2010-2015).

President Obama’s three appointees sided, big-time, with the LIRR’s unions, when releasing its 51-page, non-binding report on the LIRR’s ongoing labor dispute. The panelists, two of them from Massachusetts and the other from Maryland, called for the LIRR to reach an accord that would give its unionized employees what amounts to a GWI of 14.75 percent over a six-year period. The panel’s final recommendation would have been 17 percent over six years, but even the president’s appointees agreed with LIRR management’s contention that these LIRR employees should contribute to their health insurance premiums. By 2015, the panel believes the LIRR should pay 97.75 percent of its unionized employees’ premiums. Today, the LIRR picks up a union employee’s entire health insurance tab.

The LIRR management team’s bid to get the presidential panel to endorse any of its proposed work-rule changes also went nowhere, such as those governing staffing requirements at Richmond Hill, or ones that would make it easier to reassign LIRR track workers to undertake bridge and building maintenance. To combat these findings, the LIRR ought to find a way to explain to the media how antiquated work rules drain the LIRR’s coffers and perpetuate inefficiencies. The LIRR’s labor unions are the only ones benefiting from the status quo when it comes to allocating personnel.

The panel’s final report was sent to President Obama on Dec. 21, and the text constantly cheers public-employee unions while showing little concern for LIRR riders and taxpayers. The price of a monthly LIRR ticket into the city from western Nassau has grown by 79 percent since 2003, rising even higher for those in eastern Nassau and Suffolk counties. Moreover, the state Legislature’s 2009 MTA bail-out package has allowed the MTA to extract another $1 billion-plus each year from New York’s downstate population through the MTA’s payroll mobility tax (PMT) while also imposing a higher MTA tax on rental cars, raising motor vehicle registration fees, and increasing the cost of taxi cab rides originating in New York City. A few of these facts are briefly acknowledged, and then downplayed, in the panel’s report.

“Fares, including any fare increases, are not typically viewed as ‘sacrifices’ by the traveling public, but rather as a cost of obtaining the service (which actually costs the Carrier [the LIRR] significantly more to provide than is recovered by the fare box),” the panel’s report opined, parrying the LIRR’s contention that the LIRR’s unions should operate within the economic constraints faced by commuters and taxpayers, who are blithely dismissed in the panel’s report as a bunch of people who will pay anything to finance the MTA’s operations. That’s true, especially when they have no say in the matter, although the state’s 2009 MTA legislation did contribute to the electoral demise in 2010 of two Long Island state Senators who voted for the epic MTA bail-out. The law was modified slightly in 2011.

Fast forward to 2014, and the MTA’s monumental money grab of 2009 is having another unintended consequence. By re-routing to the MTA 34 cents out of every $100 earned in New York’s 12 downstate counties though the PMT, state lawmakers created an irresistible pot of MTA cash that the LIRR’s labor unions are now laying claim to. With the ardent support of three Obama administration appointees, the unions just may get it.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: