Unions representing more than 1,000 Metro-North Railroad workers are beginning to rumble about a potential strike against the country’s second-busiest weekday commuter railroad.
Members of System Council No. 7 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) last week received letters requesting they vote to approve a strike against Metro-North Railroad, the MTA commuter rail line that takes close to 180,000 riders on weekdays between towns in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut and into The Bronx and Manhattan.
“We’re at a deadlock, we’re not getting anywhere with Metro-North,” Arthur Davidson, the union’s general chairman, told THE CITY. “They won’t deviate from their position.”
In a January 20 four-page letter to electrical workers, Davidson laid out the union’s positions.
“Metro-North’s position is that we must accept their wage proposal because other unions have accepted their proposal and established a ‘contract pattern,’” he wrote.
Contract negotiations with the MTA have been ongoing since 2019. Labor leaders said that after 10 collective bargaining and mediation sessions, talks have hit an impasse. The union leaders charge that electrical workers on the Long Island Rail Road receive “considerably greater compensation” than their Metro-North counterparts.
The IBEW is one of several unions that represent Metro-North workers and is backed by two Transport Workers Union locals, whose members include mechanics and car inspectors. The TWU filed a separate federal request for mediation in the contract dispute, according to documents obtained by THE CITY.
“If and when IBEW strikes, we will not cross the picket lines,” John Samuelsen, international president of the TWU, told THE CITY. “They will have no ability to run trains.”
The path toward walking off the job, however, is a winding one. Davidson said the electrical workers must first try to resolve the contract dispute before being permitted to strike.
“It wouldn’t happen tomorrow,” he said. “I would say it’s about a year from now.”
Commuter rail employees, unlike other public sector workers in New York state, are allowed under federal law to strike over “major disputes” affecting rates of pay, rules and working conditions that have not been resolved through mediation with the National Mediation Board or via arbitration.
The electrical workers union said the MTA is offering “unacceptable” yearly pay bumps that would start at 2% and that are based on railroad industry wage patterns.
MTA officials declined to comment on the labor issues.
“We don’t negotiate collective bargaining agreements in the press,” said agency spokesperson Aaron Donovan. “We expect these hardworking employees will remain as committed to the New Yorkers they serve as they always have in the past.”
What Will Biden Do?
If the workers vote to approve a strike, the union would then request the National Mediation Board to release them from the mediation process, with the possibility of a strike coming only after a 30-day cooling-off period — unless the board refers the matter to President Joe Biden, a development which would further delay a potential strike.
Joshua Freeman, a distinguished professor emeritus of history at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center, said he is doubtful the White House would step in.
Last year, the administration convened an emergency board to settle a dispute between the nation’s largest freight rail companies and the unions. Biden and Congress imposed an agreement that averted a strike but left workers without highly sought-after paid medical leave, angering many rank-and-file members.
Freeman said the Biden administration “took a lot of heat from unions over that, and in this less disruptive case, I doubt would want to go through that again.”
Jim Cameron, founder of Commuter Action Group, an advocacy organization for Metro-North commuters, noted that ridership is still well below pre-pandemic levels and that the MTA is facing a “fiscal cliff” when federal emergency money runs out.
“The MTA is in dire financial straits,” he said. “I don’t think there is much of an appetite to pay their union members more when they don’t have the ridership.”
Samuelsen, the international TWU leader, says the talk of a strike is more than bluster, though he conceded a work stoppage is “not immediate” either.
“It’s a long process,” he said. “But at the end of that process, we will be on strike.”