June 24, 2014
By Beth Borzone
Massapequa, NY – Over 3,000 Long Island Railroad workers and their supporters rallied at Massapequa Train Station on Saturday demanding that the MTA accept the Presidential Emergency Board Recommendations to avoid a strike.
Political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, on the federal, state, and local level joined union leaders in speaking out to support the workers.
“Two Presidential Emergency Boards (PEBs) said that you deserved a fair wage to take care of your families,” said Rich Schaffer, Supervisor of the Town of Babylon. Schaffer condemned the MTA, saying that while union leaders were willing to respect what the Presidential Emergency Board said, the MTA was not.
“They’ve (MTA) thumbed their nose at two Presidential Emergency Boards,” Shaffer said, “but we’re going to keep them to delivering on a fair and equitable agreement.” Shaffer stated that he would stand with the workers “if we have to stand on a picket line to get that fair and equitable contract.”
Assemblyman Joe Saladino reassured the crowd that all members of the New York State Assembly from Long Island were pro-labor.
“Republicans and Democrats, all of us are unified, because we stand with you,” Saladino said.
Kevan Abrahams, Nassau County legislator, who is also running for Congress, concurred with Saladino’s sentiment: “Parties do not matter. People are what matter.” Abrahams urged MTA, “Let’s get it done!”
Joel Parker, National Vice-President and Assistant to the President of TCU/IAM, said that union leaders were willing to accept the Presidential Emergency Board Recommendations: “PEB 245’s recommendation of two and a half percent a year in net wages is a fair compromise. It is not shooting out the lights. It is affordable. We know it. MTA knows it. And Governor Cuomo knows it.”
Jimmy Schneider, General Chairman, IRSA, lamented that while he told his union members to come to work, do their jobs and have faith in the collective bargaining process, four years later, they are still without a contract, even though their work has enabled the LIRR to support the highest ridership numbers and highest on time performance in its history.
“It’s time for the MTA to stop the crap and give us a contract,” Schneider announced.
Dean DeVita, Secretary-Treasurer, of the National Conference of Firemen & Oilers/Service Employees International Union (NCFO), pointed out that while workers have received no raises since their contracts expired on June 15, 2010, prices have gone up substantially.
“On June 15, 2010, the contract expired, the price of sausage was $3.50 a pound…today it’s $7.00 a pound. The price of gas on June 15, 2010 was $2.70 a gallon. I saw last night $4.09! Where’s our raise? Forbes magazine wrote a few weeks back that Long Island is the sixth most expensive area in the United States to live.”
John Lacey, Assistant President, Directing General Chairman of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, District 19, thanked the families of the LIRR workers who he said sacrificed wage increases and patiently waited during the four years that the unions followed the strict negotiations process outlined in the Railway Labor Act of 1926.
Decades of railroad strikes resulting in violence and economic hardship in the late 1800s and 1920s caused Republican President Calvin Coolidge in 1924 to urge Congress to devise legislation that would create a negotiations process for labor and railroad management to settle disputes peacefully. The result was the The Railway Labor Act of 1926.
“In 1926 an act was created, The Railway Labor Act,” Lacey explained, “That act was created to protect the public against strikes. This is a gut wrenching process that we have followed for four years. Your families, I thank you. Your families have done without raises. Your children have done without raises. We have waited four years. It’s got to end. It’s got to stop.”
Dean DeVita reviewed the journey of the negotiations process:
“This is what we’ve done. We went to Madison Avenue. We went to Jamaica Station. We went to K-Street in Washington and we came back. We had two Presidential Emergency Boards in two different hotels in New York. But where do we find ourselves? In the streets! Labor has agreed with both findings. There are no negotiations. The PEB ruled! The MTA is forcing a strike.”
According to the process outlined in the Railroad Labor Act of 1926, once the PEB report is submitted, both labor and management must maintain the status quo for an additional 30-day cooling off period (which they can mutually agree to extend), but once the cooling off period is over, each side is free to act in its own economic interest, which means that management can impose any proposal it wants or force a lock out, and labor can strike, as explained on the website of the Pennsylvania Federation –Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division.
“The union’s position is that we have to strike at the end of that (cooling off) period or else the railroad is able to unilaterally implement their contract, or the last offer to the board, which was 0%, 0%, 0%, 2%, 2%, so we would be coming to work and giving up the victory at that point,” Chris Natale, General Chairman, Long Island General Committee, Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (AFL-CIO) stated in a conversation after the rally, adding, “They are forcing us to strike and making it out to be our fault.”
“If they want a strike, we will walk out the door and shut this island down,” said Ricardo Sanchez, General Chairman, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
A strike would be devastating to the Long Island economy, particularly that of eastern Long Island, according to Congressman Tim Bishop.
“The pillar of the eastern economy is travel and tourism,” Rep. Tim Bishop announced from the podium during the rally, chiding the MTA contingency plan that would encourage people to stay home. “If people stay home and don’t come to Eastern Long Island,” Bishop said, “That’s the death knell of the eastern Long Island economy.
“If we go on strike during the summer time, 300,000 riders a day won’t be able to get in to their jobs. You are affecting Wall Street, everywhere, and Long Island over the summer. These are the months for these stores to make money, for these businesses to make money…We’re on Long Island and we don’t want to see that happen. For the MTA not to accept two (PEB) board recommendations, two boards with arbitrators that were appointed by Republican presidents on the PEB, it’s really…I’m beside myself,” said Arthur Maratea, National Vice President, Transportation Communication Union/IAM in a conversation after the rally.
“Usually, it’s just one Board, that’s the neutral party, and both sides accept it. We didn’t get everything we wanted; they didn’t get everything they wanted, but we stood up and said ok, we’ve got to accept it to avoid the strike. The MTA went two (PEB) boards and still said, ‘No.’ Now, they don’t even want to do an extension to save the summer for Long Island residents,” Maratea added.
One solution is for the Governor to step in and direct the MTA to accept the findings of the Presidential Emergency Boards.
“Governor Cuomo, it is time for you to direct the MTA to agree to both PEBs,” DeVita demanded during the rally, “Governor Cuomo, it is time for you to end the fear of a strike that the commuters will have to deal with.”
Schneider told the crowd that the last railroad strike in 1988 caused Mario Cuomo to lose his bid for re-election for governor in 1992 and warned that Andrew Cuomo could suffer the same fate.
“It’s time for Andrew Cuomo to wake up,” Schneider said, leading the crowd in a chant of “Wake up, Andrew! Wake up!” which was reminiscent of the LIRR workers chant in 1988, “Wake up, Mario! Wake up!”
“Governor Cuomo needs to step up or it’s going to be ’92 all over again,” said Anthony Simon, key organizer of the rally and General Chairman, Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation General Committee of Adjustment 505.
Nick LaMorte from the executive committee of the Long Island Federation of Labor urged the crowd to register to vote and to get to the polls.
To some, the challenges facing the LIRR unions represent a bigger issue nationwide.
“This is not about us,” announced Chris Silvera, Secretary-Treasurer, Teamsters Local 808, “We’re the last ones standing in the labor movement. Indiana – right to work. Michigan –right to work. In Detroit, they are getting ready to take their pensions. This is about the future of America. That battle just happens to be fought in New York. That battle in this moment of history is being lead by the Long Island Railroad!”
“Every American worker deserves a pension. Every American worker deserves the right to a company sponsored health-care plan,” Silvera stated.
“There’s a war on labor,” Dave Denenberg, Nassau County Legislator, said, “And that war has to stop.”
For Brian Weeks, TCU member, who participated in the rally, it’s simply about fairness. “We’re a very hard working group of guys and we deserve a fair shake,” Weeks said.