By Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Talks to avert a Long Island Rail Road strike broke down on Monday and the unions representing workers at the country's largest commuter railroad said they were proceeding with plans to strike on Sunday.
"No further negotiations are scheduled," union negotiator Anthony Simon said in a statement after announcing that talks with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had collapsed.
A "big gulf" between management and the unions representing 5,400 workers scuttled the talks, MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast told a news conference.
"We’ve done the giving. They've done the taking," Prendergast said, adding management adjusted its offer three times and could not move further without draining money for capital improvements and triggering fare hikes. A strike would leave some 300,000 daily commuters from New York's suburbs on Long Island scrambling for alternative transportation.
Although the strike could begin at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, service could begin winding down on Saturday, MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said.
Those dates coincide with a planned 10-day vacation to Italy by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is scheduled to leave on Friday for the longest personal trip by a sitting New York mayor in more than two decades. He told a news conference the impact of a possible strike would be blunted by the summer vacation season.
"We benefit from the fact it's July and the amount of travel is reduced in July," de Blasio said. He would not commit to cutting short his trip abroad.
The MTA had offered a 17 percent wage increase over seven years and would require future employees to pay higher contributions for medical insurance and pensions.
In the last proposal made public by the coalition of eight unions representing LIRR staff, workers asked for a wage hike of 17 percent over six years without such concessions from future employees.
Calling LIRR workers the "highest-paid labor force" of U.S. commuter railroads, with an excellent pension plan, Prendergast blamed the unions for being intransigent.
"Until they're ready to move, there's no reason to have negotiations," Prendergast said.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Susan Heavey and Peter Cooney)