- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 16, 2014

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - After days of avoiding the fray, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo publicly waded into a labor dispute Wednesday that threatens to bring the nation’s largest commuter railroad to a standstill.

Cuomo said a strike on the Long Island Rail Road would be “highly disruptive” to nearly 300,000 daily riders. On Wednesday morning he called on rail worker unions and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to restart talks to avert a strike; both sides returned to the bargaining table in the afternoon.

“We must do everything we can to prevent Long Islanders from being held hostage by a strike,” Cuomo said Wednesday. “Both the MTA and the LIRR unions need to put the interests of New Yorkers first.”

Unions representing 5,400 rail workers threaten to strike at 12:01 a.m. Sunday unless they get a new contract. A shutdown would likely choke roads, prevent thousands from getting to work and cost an estimated $50 million in lost economic activity each day.

If Cuomo can avert a strike without agreeing to fare increases, the Democratic governor would once again burnish his self-styled image as a deft negotiator and pragmatist who - in this case, literally - makes the trains run on time. An added plus: Cuomo would score political points in New York City while Mayor Bill de Blasio, Cuomo’s fellow Democrat but sometimes rival, preps for a 10-day Italian vacation.

Failure to avert a crippling strike at a state agency like the MTA, however, would deal a rare, embarrassing and high-profile setback to Cuomo, who is believed to have presidential ambitions. Cuomo aims to win re-election this fall by huge margins; support from both unions and Long Island voters would be needed to do it.

“Traditionally, Long Island was a Republican bastion but it’s become solidly two-party, so it’s a critical constituency,” said Rosanna Perotti, a political scientist at Long Island’s Hofstra University. “Cuomo does not want to offend the suburban voters from Long Island.”

It was Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who negotiated a deal to end the last strike by LIRR workers, a two-day walkout in 1994. The elder Cuomo lost a re-election bid later that year.

Before prodding both sides back to the negotiating table on Wednesday, Andrew Cuomo had previously sought to distance himself from the current dispute, initially saying it was up to Congress to intervene and then saying he was leaving the negotiations to the unions and the MTA, a state agency. On Tuesday he said he was receiving regular updates on the talks but said he was taking a “see how it goes” approach before deciding whether to step in.

“I’m sure he’s trying to do everything he can behind the scenes,” U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer told reporters Wednesday.

It’s a familiar pattern for a governor who often avoids highlighting his involvement in negotiations until a deal is within sight.

In April, Cuomo brokered a deal between the MTA and 34,000 city subway and bus workers that included raises and new benefits - but also higher employee health insurance contributions. His involvement in the talks wasn’t publicized until the deal had been secured.

“The governor has shown talent at resolving these disputes in the past,” said Sen. Jack Martins, a Long Island Republican who has urged Cuomo to get involved in the LIRR talks, adding: “Make the call, governor.”

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