Long Island Rail Road unions and the MTA -- deadlocked after contract talks broke down Monday -- are preparing for a strike that could begin at 12:01 a.m. Sunday.
After less than an hour of negotiations to avert a potential crippling work stoppage, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Thomas 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.
The unions' 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."
Lead union negotiator Anthony Simon faulted the MTA for the talks collapsing.
"We have come to a complete impasse," Simon said after leaving the Times Square meeting at the law offices of Proskauer Rose. "The MTA is causing this. There's no way, shape or form that the unions want to do this."
He left the door open for an eleventh-hour resolution, but said that would require the MTA to come to the table with a response to the union's latest offer or Gov. Andrew M. 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 -- who have said they twice offered to delay a strike -- and MTA officials say they will both begin preparing for a strike that could legally begin Sunday.
MTA officials said 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. However, union officials said they've been told by LIRR managers that a "wind down" of the system could begin as early Wednesday, but there will be no work stoppage before Sunday.
In the event of a strike, the unions said joint entrances to Penn Station used by Amtrak and New Jersey Transit would not be picketed.
The unions' counteroffer, Prendergast said, proposes extending to 10 years from five how long it takes workers to vest in their pensions, and having new employees pay into their pensions longer, but at a smaller rate than the current 4 percent.
Despite rejecting the unions' offer, Prendergast said there remains room to negotiate the MTA's current proposal.
The Monday meeting was the first since the unions made the formal counteroffer Thursday to the MTA's current proposal, which promises 17 percent raises for current workers over seven years, but seeks to help fund them by having future workers take twice as long to achieve top pay, pay twice as much as current workers in health care costs, and contribute to their pensions permanently, instead of only for their first 10 years, as most current employees do.
The unions had previously sought the MTA's adherence to the recommendations of two Presidential Emergency Boards that called for 17 percent raises over six years and no concessions specific to future workers.
Simon said the unions' latest offer reflected the MTA's admitted ability to afford the $40 million annual cost of the Presidential Board recommendations.
To reach a deal, "we are going to do what we can until the very last minute to prevent this from happening, but we cannot do it alone," Simon said. "You can't just say 'the counter is no good' and not counter. That's absolutely absurd."
Prendergast suggested local labor leaders were under pressure by international union representatives to make a deal that was not in the best interest of LIRR workers. Simon said the international labor leadership supported the local unions, but "I will make the decision on what we can live with, and this is not it."
Mark Epstein, chairman of the LIRR Commuter Council, a watchdog group, said he is "deeply" disappointed that both sides broke off talks.
"Not going to the table is unacceptable. If you don't talk no progress can be made. You do not give in. Go back. Refocus, regroup and resolve the issue," Epstein said. "This affects too many people to walk away from the table."
With both the unions and MTA management signaling that a strike appears highly likely, the county executives of Nassau and Suffolk urged the two sides to keep talking.
"We remain cautiously hopeful that both sides will continue negotiations and come to a solution that best suits the public, the MTA and the unions," Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's spokesman Justin Meyers said.
"All parties should be at the negotiation table looking for solutions," Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano said.
With David M. Schwartz and Paul LaRocco