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Negotiations move forward as NY rail strike looms

MINEOLA, N.Y. (AP) — The chief negotiator for unions at the nation's largest commuter railroad was set for a second day of renewed talks Thursday after vowing to keep working toward a deal that would avoid a strike this weekend. The unions and the Long Island Rail Road said they would continue face-to-face negotiations Thursday in New York City and were maintaining informal contact while meeting separately and "crunching numbers." The sides, urged on by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, held a five-hour session on Wednesday after two days of increased tension and bleak prospects for resolution stemming from a railroad proposal to make future employees contribute to their to health and pension plans. "The message to the riding public is what we've said all along: We are not going to leave the table until we can do everything in our power to prevent a work stoppage," the unions' chief negotiator, Anthony Simon, said Wednesday. A spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs the railroad, declined to characterize the talks but said it remained committed to negotiating. Cuomo said everything must be done to prevent the railroad's 300,000 daily riders "from being held hostage" by a strike, set for 12:01 a.m. Sunday. Simon credited Cuomo with prodding the MTA back to the bargaining table after talks broke down Monday. At an impasse, the union had started telling members and riders to prepare for a strike that would create a commuting nightmare in and around the nation's largest city. 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 percent raise over six years while leaving work rules and pensions alone. The MTA offered a 17 percent 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. MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast has said the agency is trying to reach an agreement with the LIRR unions that avoids a potential rate increase in the future. 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. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio took a ribbing from Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert about his plans to go to Italy with his family during the potential rail strike. De Blasio quipped Wednesday night during a taping of his first appearance on "The Colbert Report" that stranded riders would have to talk to his wife about whether they could crash at the mayoral residence, Gracie Mansion. ___ 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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