MTA and Long Island Rail Road unions, heeding a call from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and federal lawmakers, returned to the bargaining table yesterday and planned to negotiate through the night to avert a weekend strike, officials said.
"I have a direct line to the MTA, like they have to me and we will be communicating," Anthony Simon, the unions' chief negotiator, told reporters during a break in talks early Wednesday evening.
He did not divulge any developments but said both sides "went back and forth" on the issues and were taking a breather.
"We need to go over a lot of things and caucus ourselves and so does the MTA," Simon said. "You can't do that without taking a break and trying to figure out where you're at."
The more optimistic tone came hours after an MTA spokesman said that the continued talks are "a good sign."
MTA chairman and chief executive Thomas Prendergast left the bargaining table shortly before 4 p.m., but spokesman Adam Lisberg told reporters they should "not read anything into it."
"He has made it clear from the beginning and the unions have understood ... that he has an MTA to run. When it's helpful for him to be at the table, he will be," Lisberg said outside the Times Square law office of Proskauer Rose where the talks are taking place.
While saying he didn't want to give "any false hopes about progress," Lisberg said the fact that the talks are continuing is important "for people who hope that both sides can reach a resolution on this."
"The fact that they're in the room I think shows that both sides are doing more than we did yesterday," Lisberg said.
Heeding calls from the governor and members of Long Island's congressional delegation, the LIRR unions and the MTA returned to the bargaining table Wednesday afternoon.
Shortly before negotiations resumed, Simon said he was hopeful both sides could "come to a reasonable resolution."
"We are going to go in there with an open mind, like we always have, and we're going to work hard to prevent a strike that would be crippling to all of labor, to all of management, and to all of the riding public," Simon said.
A day after saying a strike by LIRR workers would not be a "disaster," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement released Wednesday that "we must do everything we can" to prevent a strike.
In the statement released by his office, the governor called for the two sides to return to the table.
"The Long Island Rail Road is a critical transportation system for Long Island and New York City," Cuomo said. "We must do everything we can to prevent Long Islanders from being held hostage by a strike that would damage the regional economy and be highly disruptive for commuters. Both the MTA and the LIRR unions need to put the interests of New Yorkers first by returning to the table today and working continuously to avoid a strike."
Cuomo had no plans to attend the session, an aide said.
Later Wednesday, at a news conference in Rochester unrelated to the contract negotiations, the governor said that "if they are talking, we are one step closer to a resolution."
He reiterated that "a strike would be a terrible, terrible inconvenience."
"There aren't a lot of options to get in from Long Island on a commute. So if the LIRR went down, it would really be a difficult situation -- 130,000 commuters," Cuomo said. "So the MTA and the LIRR unions both would have failed, in my opinion, if it came to that. So let's keep our fingers crossed."
Earlier, MTA officials said they agreed with the governor, releasing a statement that included a call to the unions to return to the bargaining table.
"As Gov. Cuomo said, a strike would disrupt families and business across the New York metropolitan region, and the only way to prevent a strike is for both sides to negotiate a fair and reasonable settlement at the bargaining table," the statement said.
"We have asked the LIRR unions to resume negotiations immediately."
Simon credited the governor with getting negotiations restarted.
"The governor is the person who called us to the table," Simon said. "And obviously we all know that when the governor of the state of New York tells you to come to the table, you come to the table. But we as the labor leaders never wanted to leave the table. So that was an easy fix. Getting the MTA to the table is what he did."
Reps. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), Peter King (R-Seaford) and Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) separately spoke with Prendergast and Simon Tuesday night, "demanding that they return, and they have returned" to the bargaining table, Israel said Wednesday on a conference call.
"I told them in the bluntest terms possible if they didn't get back at the table there would be hell to pay," Israel said.
"Our interest is just getting them to stay at the table, avoid a strike and protect commuters," he said. "And I am encouraged that they are back at the table today. We want them to stay there until they get a done deal."
Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said both parties should work it out themselves.
"I think everyone now agrees Congress is not going to settle this," Schumer said. "It has to be settled between them and hopefully the sooner, the better."
State Sen. Jack Martins (R-Mineola), who has urged the governor to get involved in the negotiations, called Cuomo's call "a welcome step toward averting a LIRR strike ... but we are not out of the woods yet," Martins said in a statement.
"I hope the governor will continue his efforts personally to help both sides break the logjam and reach an agreement, before a strike occurs," Martins said.
Ricardo Sanchez, general chairman of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, one of the unions in negotiations with the MTA, said Wednesday that he is now more optimistic.
"The tone has changed," said Sanchez, who expects the MTA will come to the table with a new counter-offer. "They have to. Otherwise, why are we meeting today?"
He also hopes Cuomo will step into the dispute.
"Hopefully he's going to intervene and help the process along," Sanchez said. "We really don't want to go out on strike. But we will."
On Tuesday, union leaders and the head of the MTA delivered dueling messages to the public and railway workers.
The MTA's Prendergast released an open letter to LIRR riders assuring them his agency "remains committed to settling this matter quickly."
Simon visited union offices throughout Long Island to coordinate Sunday's possible 12:01 a.m. work stoppage. The "MTA cannot settle quickly if they do not wake up," he said.
Cuomo, on Tuesday, when asked whether he would intervene in negotiations, said: "Well, let's see how it goes."
He then downplayed the potential impact of a shutdown. "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."
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, meanwhile, estimated an LIRR strike could cost the state $50 million a day in economic losses.
Prendergast's agency met with LIRR unions Monday in an abbreviated negotiation session, but rejected the unions' counteroffer without presenting a counter of its own. In his letter Tuesday, he wrote that an agreement with the unions would have to be "affordable not just today, but also into the future" without putting pressure on the MTA to raise fares or scale back capital investments.
"A strike would have a devastating impact," Prendergast wrote. "It's time to have productive negotiations to resolve our differences and return to what we all do best together -- serving our LIRR customers."
The unions on Wednesday responded with an open letter to the "riders of the Long Island Rail Road," blaming the MTA for "irresponsible actions" that "will cause a strike this weekend."
The unions "have done all in our power to reach a reasonable settlement in four years of bargaining," the letter said.
In his letter, Prendergast included details of the MTA's current proposal.
The plan calls for 17 percent raises for current workers over seven years and asks health care contributions of 2 percent of weekly wages. To help fund the raises, the MTA wants future workers to pay twice as much in health care costs, take twice as long to achieve top pay, and contribute to pensions permanently, instead of for 10 years, as most now do.
The unions, following the recommendations of two federal mediation boards, want the 17 percent raises over six years, and, according to the MTA, have proposed much smaller concessions for future workers that amount to 0.15 percent savings from their previous offer.
Monindar Baldeosingh, 39, of Jamaica, Queens, said Wednesday at the Farmingdale LIRR station that is taking a two-week vacation Friday to see in his native Trinidad, a trip planned nearly a month ago. It was a stroke of good luck that the trip will overlap the planned LIRR strike days, he said, smiling broadly.
"If it's not over by [the time he returns] then, I guess I will have to try and take the bus," to work in Farmingdale, Baldeosingh said.
With Gary Dymski, Tom Brune and Yancey Roy, Khloe Meitz