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Contract talks resume as Long Island Rail Road strike looms

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Labor negotiators met in New York on Tuesday for another round of talks to avert a strike by 5,400 workers at the Long Island Rail Road, the country's largest commuter railway.

LIRR workers have threatened to walk off the job on July 20, when a 60-day cooling-off period is set to expire, if they are unable to agree on a contract after lengthy negotiations with the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

A strike would affect about 300,000 weekday riders, most of whom use the railway to commute to and from jobs in New York City from their homes on Long Island.

The MTA has worked on a strike backup plan, but the details have not been made public, agency spokesman Aaron Donovan said.

"We hope to avoid having to go to a contingency plan," he said, adding that an LIRR strike would cripple Long Island's economy and leave many residents and tourists stranded.

Anthony Simon, chief spokesman for a coalition of eight unions representing LIRR workers at the bargaining table, was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.

In a recent statement, Simon said the unions had pushed for an extended cooling-off period to delay a possible strike, which could only be stopped by Congress. He also said union members care about Long Island and its economy.

The MTA and the unions have unsuccessfully negotiated for four years on the labor contracts and have worked with federal mediators to reach a deal.

Most recently, the MTA offered a 17 percent wage increase to union workers over seven years with higher benefit contributions made by future employees, both sides said. The unions have asked for a wage hike of 17 percent over six years without concessions for future employees.

The wage increases would be applied retroactively through 2010. Employees would receive a lump sum for the retroactive wage hikes.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Jonathan Oatis)

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