(Adds talks under way, quotes, details)
By Natasja Sheriff
NEW YORK, July 17 (Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo took the lead on Thursday in talks aimed at averting a strike on the Long Island Rail Road, the nation’s busiest commuter railway.
Three days before the threatened walkout at 12:01 a.m. EDT (0401 GMT) on Sunday, Cuomo called a meeting in his New York office between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and union bosses representing 5,400 rail workers. The meeting started at 10 a.m. Thursday.
A strike would leave roughly 145,000 daily commuters from New York City’s suburbs on Long Island scrambling for alternative transport. Those riders make an average total of 285,000 trips per weekday, the MTA said.
“I want to make sure I have done everything I can possibly do to avert a strike,” Cuomo said in a statement.
“Time is very short. We are less than 48 hours from the point at which the railroad would commence closing procedures,” Cuomo said.
Although the deadline for the labor action is early Sunday, the MTA said it would have to begin driving trains into yards to secure them as early as Saturday.
The MTA has offered a 17 percent pay raise over seven years, limits to benefit contributions and continuing pension payments for current employees. The MTA said unionized Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) workers are among the best-paid in the nation, making $87,000 a year on average.
A coalition of eight unions negotiating for workers have balked at a requirement that future workers would have to make steeper payments for their benefits, saying it would create an unfair two-tier system among the LIRR’s employees.
The meeting in the governor’s office began a day after the two sides met at Cuomo’s urging on Wednesday in offices near Times Square after talks broke down on Monday.
“Late yesterday, when the conversations had not been fruitful, I began participating in them directly,” Cuomo said. “The possible LIRR strike would be highly disruptive to the people and economy of Long Island.”
Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Jonathan Allen, Jim Loney and Tom Brown