Metro-North top union leaders back rail strike vote

Metro-North top union leaders back rail strike vote
http://www.lohud.com/story/news/transit/2017/08/29/metro-north-union-lea...

Thomas C. Zambito, tzambito@lohud.comPublished 2:44 p.m. ET Aug. 29, 2017 | Updated 4:30 p.m. ET Aug. 29, 2017
The executive board of Metro-North’s largest union today agreed to ask its 2,400 members to authorize a rail strike that could impact the daily commute of tens of thousands of commuters from the Lower Hudson Valley and beyond.

The 5-0 vote by the general chairmen of the Association of Commuter Rail Employees was a clear-cut indication that the union’s leadership has gotten behind executive director James Fahey’s call for a rail strike, something that has not happened on Metro-North in 30 years.

Fahey made the motion to send the vote to members at a meeting today in Manhattan.

“I am one hundred percent happy that everyone wants to stand by and fight for their members,” Fahey said. “We’ll fight for the welfare and the safety of our members. I’m ecstatic that every general chairman voted on my motion.”

There is no timetable for a strike vote or any projected strike date.

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Each voting member of the executive board represents a different segment of Metro-North’s workforce, among them engineers, conductors, rail traffic controllers, signalmen and yard masters.

ACRE is one of a dozen unions representing Metro-North workers and it is unclear whether other unions would support the strike call.

Metro-North officials were dismayed by Fahey's efforts to air contractual issues in public.

“We don’t negotiate labor contracts in the press," spokesman Aaron Donovan said. "We expect any outstanding issues will be resolved. Let’s be clear: threatening an unlawful strike is completely irresponsible and is an insult to hundreds of thousands of Metro-North customers.”

The vote comes while ACRE is working under a contract signed in 2015 that was up for renewal nine months ago. Fahey said there have been no substantive discussions on a new contract.

At issue are a number of grievances that ACRE claims Metro-North has refused to address over the past year.

Topping the list are lengthy delays in the processing of disability pensions for members who’ve been medically disqualified for work. Fahey says the delay has forced the union to enlist doctors and dentists to provide free health care for members who’ve lost insurance benefits.And, the union claims, Metro-North has violated its agreement by hiring locomotive engineers from the outside instead of giving first preference to existing Metro-North workers.

Letters outlining the executive board’s concerns will likely go out to Metro-North members next week, a process that will be handled by an independent agency, the American Arbitration Association.

ACRE’s designated chief counsel, Jeffrey Chartier, will help the union decide which issues are major contractual disputes and which are minor, Fahey said.

Under the terms of the federal Railway Labor Act, railroad employees can only strike to remedy “major” contractual issues.

300,000 could be affected

A strike by key members of Metro-North's workforce could disrupt the daily commute for the nearly 300,000 customers who ride the commuter rail each weekday from points as distant as New Haven, Connecticut, into Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal.

The head of a Metro-North commuter group says the strike-talk is little more than a negotiating tool for the union.

"I do not think commuters should be alarmed by this 'sabre-rattling' by the unions," said James Cameron, the founder of Commuter Action Group. "I have every confidence that the railroad and unions will negotiate a new contract, as they have done for decades. Nobody wants a strike, certainly not commuters, and neither the railroad workers who are paid handsomely for their labors. A strike would be illegal and hurt the strikers as much, if not more, than commuters."

The last strike on Metro-North was in 1983, soon after the commuter rail took over from Conrail. Metro-North’s 622 conductors and train men struck over who would decide the size of train crews – management or workers, according to a report in United Press International. That strike lasted 42 days, disrupting the commute of some 90,000 customers who were forced to take cars and busses into the city.

Last year, Metro-North set a record for ridership with 86.5 million customers, more than doubling the total from 1983. It is the nation's second busiest commuter rail behind the Long Island Rail Road.

In recent years, Metro-North has been dogged by a series of derailments and mishaps that claimed the lives of customers and rail workers.

In December 2013, a speeding train derailed along a curve near the Spuyten-Duyvil section of the Bronx when an engineer fell asleep at the controls. Four passengers were killed and dozens of passengers were seriously injured.

Twitter: @TomZambito