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OPINION - The railroad strike

by Chris Conley

NEWS BLOG (WSAU) There may be a strike on the Long Island Rail Road -- the nation's busiest commuter line -- next week. Here are the public positions of each side. The MTA, a quasi-government agency which runs the railroad, is offering an 11-percent pay raise. The seven unions which represent engineers, conductors, and shop workers say more health care and retirement costs are being pushed onto them and they want to be "made whole" in their new contract; a 17-percent increase would do it. A presidential commission will make a recommendation on a new collective bargaining agreement today, but their findings are non-binding. A federally-mandated cooling off period comes to an end on July 20th.

As with many public union contracts, particularly in railroading and mass transit, the work rules are arcane and designed specifically to get more money into the pockets of the brotherhood.

Here are four specific areas: LIRR engineers and conductors are entitled to "penalty pay", an extra day's pay, if they are asked to work a train that isn't their regular assignment. Here's an example: Each morning at 6:08am, an LIRR train arrives at its terminal at Babylon. The train sits in the station as a new crew comes on-duty, then at 6:32am the train operates in the other direction as a New York City-bound express. But, suppose the 6:08 is late. The next crew might be re-assigned to the 6:42 New York local instead. They'll start their work-day 10-minutes later, and although they'd still be within their regular hours, they'd get an extra day's pay because they didn't work their regular run. Other crews, on less-traveled parts of the railroad, could get overtime plus an extra day's pay if there are schedule or staffing changes.

Another union abuse: the Long Island Railroad is partly-electrified (with trains drawing power from an electrified third rail) and part diesel-powered (with trains pulled by diesel powered engines). The union was fearful that its diesel engineers would be laid off as more lines were electrified, so they got a rule in their contract that says an engineer gets an extra day's pay if he operates both an electric and diesel train in the same day. Operationally, this happens quite often. An engineer might start his day at Port Jefferson, in the LIRR's non-electrified territory, and take a rush-hour train to Jamaica. That engineer's next run could be taking an electric train to Hicksville -- a short run of about 40-minutes -- and back. If that's his regular assignment, he'd double his salary.

Some, but not all, "yard moves" are considered trips... and the LIRR requires many yard moves to position equipment before and after rush hour. The most egregious yard move is from Richmond Hill yard to Morris Park Yard. Richmond Hill is a massive train-servicing facility. Morris Park is literally a few thousand feet of track away, and sometimes services trains when Richmond Hill doesn't have a spare track. An engineer who moves a train between the yards -- about a quarter-mile down the line -- gets a day's pay. Some LIRR workers get triple their regular salary via these work rules.

And lastly, there was the infamous disability scandal. 75% of LIRR retirees filed for disability payments when they begin collecting their pensions. The claims turned out to be a widespread case of fraud. The union told these workers to be checked out by a friendly doctor, who'd certify the claim and take a kick-back. One of the disabled retirees, who claimed to have a bad back, was videotaped by an undercover investigator taking kung-fu lessons. This scam was finally shut down in 2011.

The typical LIRR worker makes $83,000 a year... one-third of the railroad's workers earn more than $100,000. That's more than many of the commuters they carry to-and-from work. Yet a strike is likely. Who's being taken for a ride?

Chris Conley

Image: LIRR trains at Jamaica, by Rail Fanner via WikiCommons.com