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In N.Y., nation's busiest commuter railroad strikes over wages, benefits

The shutdown of the Long Island Railroad (LIRR), as well as the remnants of a winter storm, was a double whammy for commuters coming into New York City yesterday. ``I saw two ladies get off a bus, take one look, and turn right around to go back home,'' says one secretary who lives at the Queens-Nassau County line and was getting ready to enter a subway station. ``I guess they didn't want to risk it.''

The Long Island Expressway, jokingly called a parking lot during regular rush hours, was bumperto bumper for even longer hours Tuesday morning.

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The nation's busiest commuter railroad, which typically carries more than 110,000 riders each weekday, ground to a halt Sunday as the first of 11 unions negotiating for a new contract went out on strike. By Tuesday, eight of the unions had joined the walkout, and others were honoring picket lines.

Talks resumed yesterday afternoon with the engineers union. At issue were wages, health and other benefits, and pensions. The LIRR has reportedly offered three 5 percent raises, which would cover two retroactive raises, and one 4.5 percent raise in 1988. The unions generally agree on the percent increases, but seek full raises over a shorter period of time. The current base salary of an average LIRR employee is $31,190, according to the railroad.

The unions have been without a contract since 1984. Unions that have rejected management's offers represent 60 percent of the railroad's organized workers. Several unions have accepted contracts, but 11 are either on strike or have not settled.

The strike is the fifth in 15 years for the commuter railroad, which forms a network of transportation hubs eastward on the island. Since the contract expired, several panels have been formed to resolve the dispute, and several cooling-off periods have elapsed.

New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo's labor adviser has asked for another cooling-off period, during which negotiations would continue, and then binding arbitration if there is no settlement. Unions leaders seemed set to reject that idea.

In the meantime, Long Island commuters prepared for the worst. Some came into the city Monday and bunked with friends. Large companies have chartered buses. Some workers stayed home Tuesday, hoping a settlement would come soon.

Initial reports were that traffic coming into the city from Long Island was up by 20 percent, says Bill Hersh, deputy chief of the ``situation room'' which monitors traffic for the Traffic Bureau.

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``We expected higher,'' Mr. Hersh says. But he notes with relief that it actually couldn't have gone much higher without resulting in horrendous traffic problems. Volume was at capacity.

``We were very concerned about the weather,'' Hersh says. ``Luckily, within the city, the sanitation department got to work.''

The main lot at Shea Stadium, where commuters could park and catch a subway into Manhattan, was filled by 9 a.m. But several lots at the John F. Kennedy International Airport had not filled.

``We're not saying that because these lots were not filled, that people should go ahead and come by car tomorrow,'' says Hersh. ``Because we fared well today, people shouldn't be deluded into bringing their car.''

``I think we're going to have this for a while,'' Hersh says with a sigh.

The strike also affects city residents. Shelley Butler, a Queens resident who works in an advertising agency, says the crowds this morning made her hostile.

``I couldn't move,'' gasped Mrs. Butler as she struggled out of Grand Central Station. ``The train is crowded on a normal day. I hope this doesn't last long.''

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