Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Tuesday a Long Island Rail Road strike would be inconvenient "but not a disaster."
Cuomo said he still wasn't sure if he'd get personally involved in the contract stalemate between LIRR unions and the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
The Democrat who is up for re-election this year sought to distance himself from the issue a bit, saying it was "between the union and the riders."
The governor tried to downplay the potential impact of a strike, which could begin this weekend. He said New Yorkers have lived through strikes before.
"Look, disastrous? No," Cuomo said at an event in Schenectady. "Look we've had strikes before, right, and we've survived. And we've had disasters. And we know what that's like. Hurricane Sandy was a disaster and we've gone through other disasters. This is not a disaster. A real pain, maybe, but not a disaster."
The governor sought to deflect a question on how his hand-picked MTA leadership has handled the situation with the strike deadline looming.
"It often gets pushed to the brink and this is a major negotiation," Cuomo said. "The LIRR is vital to Long Islanders. Long Island households do not have any additional funds to pay for increases in fares . . . So the MTA is saying we want to hold the line on fares and we need to run the railroad. So we're working within a budget and the union is saying they want additional funds."
Cuomo said any resolution has to be "fair."
"Remember the MTA doesn't have any money except for what the taxpayers and the riders give to the MTA," Cuomo said. "This is a resolution, really, between the union and the riders."
Meanwhile, in an "open letter" to customers Tuesday, MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said a new contract with LIRR union workers "must be affordable not just today but also into the future" and called for "productive negotiations to resolve our differences."
Long Island Rail Road union leaders have scheduled to strike as early as Sunday, after negotiations broke down Monday.
"The MTA remains committed to settling this matter quickly, but any new agreement must be affordable not just today, but also into the future, without jeopardizing the investments necessary to maintain the service we provide our riders or placing additional pressure on future fares," said Prendergast's letter, posted at the MTA's website.
Lead union negotiator Anthony Simon, in response to the letter, said the MTA has provoked a strike, including by not responding Monday with a counteroffer.
Simon also said the MTA's stance in negotiations is that "it will take a strike to get this done."
"The MTA cannot settle quickly if they do not wake up," Simon said. "They again showed how quickly they want a strike by coming in with nothing yesterday."
In the most recent MTA offer, the open letter says a current LIRR employee would receive:
A 17 percent wage increase over seven years;
An average $22,000 retroactive payment;
Health care contributions of just 2 percent of base salary;
No changes to pension contributions;
No changes to work rules;
To afford this offer, the MTA asks that future LIRR employees:
Contribute 4 percent to health care;
Contribute to their pensions throughout their career as an LIRR employee;
Work more years to reach top pay.
"Under this plan, both existing and new LIRR employees will remain the highest paid commuter railroad workers in the country, and with the best pension in the industry," the letter says.
Prendergast also says a strike "would have a devastating impact" and that it is time for "productive negotiations to resolve our differences."
After meeting for less than an hour Monday, Prendergast said there remained "a gulf" between the two sides' proposals for a contract governing 5,400 workers at the largest commuter railway in North America.
Last Thursday's union proposal amounted to just a 0.15 percent change from its previous stance, Prendergast said, disclosing details of the counteroffer for the first time.
"They're offering things that really don't accrue savings for us," said Prendergast, defending the agency's decision not to counter the union's latest offer. "We're not going to negotiate against ourselves."
Simon said Monday after leaving the Times Square meeting that "we have come to a complete impasse. The MTA is causing this. There's no way, shape or form that the unions want to do this."
He left the possibility for an 11th-hour resolution but said that would require the MTA to come to the table with a response to the union's latest offer or Cuomo intervening and telling the MTA to "settle this."
Cuomo's office did not respond to requests for comment, but Cuomo has said he does not plan to get involved in the labor dispute.
Union leaders have said they have twice offered to delay a strike. After the talks Monday, Prendergast dismissed putting off the strike until September.
Unions and MTA officials say they will both begin preparing for a strike that could legally begin Sunday.
MTA officials have said that the final trains before the strike would begin to depart about 9 p.m. Saturday, with the goal of having all trains stored and secured before midnight. Union officials, however, said they've been told by LIRR managers that a "wind down" of the system could begin as early as Wednesday, but there will be no work stoppage before Sunday.
With Gary Dymski