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Congress Will Not Intervene In Contract Dispute To Prevent LIRR Strike

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- With 11 days left before a potential Long Island Rail Road strike, Congress said Wednesday it will not intervene to prevent the walk out of 5,400 union workers.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas Prendergast met with members of the New York delegation Wednesday to see if Congress would step in if an agreement is not reached by the July 20 deadline.

But as CBS 2's Marcia Kramer reported from Washington, Congress had two words for the unions, the MTA and the other officials looking to them for a solution: no dice.

"For anyone to be looking for a silver bullet from Congress, they would be making a big mistake," said U.S. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. "This is a ultimately a state responsibility to resolve within the state, and we're not going to do anything to interfere with the negotiating process whatsoever."

King said Congress simply cannot offer a "magic solution," and added that if Congress does get involved, many members voting on the outcome have no connection to New York.

"If it did get into Congress, then you're talking about 435 members of Congress, most of whom have no connection whatsoever to the Long Island Rail Road -- states like Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee," he said. "The last thing that anyone from New York should want is to have people from these states writing a labor management agreement for New York state."

Indeed, Republicans and Democrats alike spoke as one voice as they said the dispute was not Congress' problem.

"A congressional solution is not an option," added U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y.

They instead urged the MTA and the unions to return to the bargaining table.

"We will be demanding that the union present a counter offer tomorrow. We are demanding that the MTA be at that meeting and receive that counter offer. We are demanding that both the MTA and the unions negotiate and get this solved quickly," said U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y.

Talks were scheduled to resume on Thursday at noon. The two sides held negotiations on Tuesday, but failed to reach an agreement.

"They had a three-hour meeting yesterday between the MTA and the unions that the MTA president chose not attend," Rep. Israel told WCBS 880's Marla Diamond. "And now being here in Washington D.C., I think is misguided and going in the wrong direction."

Congress Will Not Intervene In Contract Dispute To Prevent LIRR Strike

In coming to Washington, Prendergast said he wanted the union to hear loud and clear that there will be no federal bailout, and that the only way to avoid a world of pain for 300,000 riders is by striking a contract settlement.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting Wednesday, Prendergast said "the parties are close" to reaching an agreement, but said both sides "have to come to the table willing to negotiate."

"We've moved substantially from day one," he said. "We've had four different moves, the union hasn't."

Prendergast said once a strike occurs, it's hard to get back to the table and "put the genie back in the bottle."

"We wanted to send a very clear message to people if they think Congress acting quickly after a strike to take action and order them to back to work and impose a solution was something they could pursue, the likelihood of that happening is exceptionally low," he said.

Congress Will Not Intervene In Contract Dispute To Prevent LIRR Strike

In a letter to congressional leaders on Tuesday, Prendergast said lawmakers had three options: pass a resolution calling for the deadline to be extended, allow a strike to proceed and then pass a resolution ending it after a period of time, or take no action.

Anthony Simon of the United Transportation Union said Tuesday that Prendergast's trip was unnecessary.

"We are not looking for Congressional intervention," he said. "We are looking for a reasonable offer."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has also said he will not intervene in the dispute.

"I want to thank the New York State Congressional delegation for making it abundantly clear today that Congress will not act to bring about a labor settlement at the Long Island Rail Road," Cuomo said in a statement Wednesday. "With this obstacle removed, it is now clear that the only path to resolution is at the bargaining table between the MTA and the unions, and they should proceed in good faith."

Cuomo said a strike of LIRR union workers is "just not an option" and said any walk out would be "a terrible failure by both the unions and the MTA."

The union and the MTA have been far apart for months, failing to agree despite two separate proposals by a presidential mediation board. Federal mediators also attended Tuesday's negotiations.

The sticking point seems to be pension and health benefits for new employees.

The MTA has offered workers a 17 percent raise over seven years, but would require them to pay toward health care costs. Currently, LIRR workers don't contribute toward their health insurance at all.

The MTA proposal would also require LIRR employees to contribute more to health care and pension costs than current ones.

"There was so many concessions to new employees, we just in good faith could not do it," said LIRR union representative Christopher Natale.

Some Fear LIRR Strike Could Be Bad For Business

The union has made a counteroffer, but the details of its proposal have not been released. Union leaders have blasted the MTA for making the details of their proposal public.

Both sides charge the other is not negotiating in good faith, but agree a strike would be bad for the LIRR's 300,000 daily riders.

Some fear a strike could also be bad for business.

"The location is geared towards a train station," Jay Jang, owner of J's Natural Market in Syosset, told WCBS 880's Sophia Hall. "So if there's no people, there's no customer. They buy sandwiches, drinks, juice, fruit cups -- just about everything that we carry."

King said it's likely neither side will be happy with a final outcome, but said the two sides need to reach some solution before the July 20 deadline.

"There's no magic answer here. The unions feel that they're entitled to better compensation and the MTA believes that they don't have enough money to give them what they want," he said. "So it's up to the two of them to try to find a common ground on this."

In the event of a strike, the MTA has said the agency plans to have shuttle buses bring a percentage of riders to Queens, where they could catch a subway train to Manhattan.

On Wednesday, the MTA said it has launched a radio and print campaign to warn commuters of the potential strike that could come in just 11 days.

In addition to the ads, the MTA has posted a page on its website with information about potential service disruptions for the LIRR's 300,000 daily riders.

LIRR employees have been working without a contract since 2010.

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