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Union chief cites progress, vows to keep negotiating to avoid New York commuter rail strike

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MINEOLA, N.Y. - The chief negotiator for the unions at the nation's largest commuter railroad emerged from the restart of talks Wednesday citing progress and vowing to continue working toward a deal that avoids a strike set for 12:01 a.m. Sunday.

"We're not leaving until we can get this done," Anthony Simon said outside the Manhattan law office where representatives from the unions and the Long Island Rail Road talked for about five hours Wednesday.

They will continue face-to-face negotiations Thursday morning, Simon said, after union officials and representatives from the railroad's parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, take time apart for "crunching numbers."

MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg declined to characterize the talks but said the agency remained committed to negotiating. He said the sides were maintaining informal contact through telephone and teleconference from their respective quarters but would not be able to finalize a resolution until Thursday at the earliest.

"It's a good sign that they're at the table talking," Lisberg said after about two hours of talks. "The fact that they're both in the room shows that both sides are doing more than they did yesterday."

The unions and the MTA resumed talks at the urging of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who issued a sharply worded statement amid a two-day impasse over whether future railroad employees would be forced to contribute to their health and pension plans.

Everything must be done to prevent the railroad's 300,000 daily riders "from being held hostage by a strike that would damage the regional economy and be highly disruptive for commuters," Cuomo said.

Simon credited Cuomo, who had been reluctant to insert himself into the dispute, with prodding the MTA back to the bargaining table after talks broke down and the union started telling members and riders to prepare for a strike that would create a commuting nightmare in and around the nation's largest city.

"If the governor of the state of New York tells you to come to the table, you come to the table," Simon said. "But we as the labour leaders never wanted to leave the table."

The railroad's 5,400 unionized workers have been without a contract since 2010.

President Barack Obama appointed two emergency boards to help resolve the dispute, but the MTA rejected both nonbinding recommendations. The emergency board's last proposal called for a 17 per cent raise over six years while leaving work rules and pensions alone.

The MTA offered a 17 per cent wage increase over seven years but also wants pension and health care concessions, which both sides agree is the sticking point holding up an agreement.

The state-run MTA operates the Long Island Rail Road; the Metro-North Railroad, serving New York City's northern suburbs and Connecticut; and the city's subways and buses. In the spring the agency reached a contract deal giving subway workers raises worth 8 per cent over 5 years.

MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast has said the agency is trying to reach an agreement with the Long Island Rail Road unions that avoids a potential rate increase in the future.

The sides held a brief session Monday before declaring negotiations had broken down, primarily over the employee-contribution issue.

The state comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, has estimated a strike would be a "devastating blow" to a region that is still struggling to recover from Superstorm Sandy and the recession. He estimated economic losses of $50 million a day.

Riders have complained that the MTA's contingency plans for a possible strike may be inadequate. The MTA has encouraged those who can to work from home. It has arranged for commuters to use large park-and-ride parking lots in Queens, where they can access subway stations.

The plan also calls for school buses to be deployed at select LIRR stations on Long Island, where commuters would be transported to subway stops.

___

Blidner reported from New York. Associated Press writers Michael R. Sisak in New York and David Klepper in Albany contributed to this report.

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