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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Millions Are Left to Make It to Work Any Way They Can - New York Times

Millions Are Left to Make It to Work Any Way They Can - New York TimesDecember 20, 2005
Millions Are Left to Make It to Work Any Way They Can

Workers walked to their offices in bitter cold, long lines formed for taxis and the police inspected cars at tunnels and bridges as transit workers started a strike this morning, shutting down New York City's subway and bus system after contract talks with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority broke down.

An average of seven million people ride the subway every day, and the disruption will prevent people from going to work, cause millions of dollars in economic damage and seriously upend the life of the city in the week before Christmas. Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, which represents 33,700 subway and bus workers, announced its first strike in 25 years this morning after feverish last-minute negotiations faltered over the transportation authority's demands for concessions on pension and health benefits for future employees.

The state's Taylor Law bars strikes by public employees and carries penalties of two days' pay for each day on strike, but the transit union decided it was worth risking the substantial fines to continue the fight for what it regards as an acceptable contract.

The union's executive board voted 28 to 10, with 5 members abstaining, to start the strike, but Michael T. O'Brien, the president of the Transport Workers Union of America, Local 100's parent union, warned the board that he could not support a strike because he believed the authority's most recent offer represented real progress.

The authority dropped its demand to raise the retirement age for a full pension to 62 for new employees, up from 55 for current employees. But the authority proposed that all future transit workers pay 6 percent of their wages toward their pensions for their first 10 years of employment, up from the 2 percent that current workers pay.

The transportation authority says that it needs to bring its soaring pension costs under control now to stave off future deficits. But union leaders vow that they will not sell out future transit workers by saddling them with lesser benefits.

Roger Toussaint, president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, announced the strike at a 3 a.m. news conference and tried to portray the action as part of a broader effort for social justice and workplace rights.

"New Yorkers, this is a fight over whether hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement," he said. "This is a fight over the erosion, or the eventual elimination, of health-benefits coverage for working people in New York. This is a fight over dignity and respect on the job, a concept that is very alien to the M.T.A."

Peter S. Kalikow, the chairman of the transportation authority, and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg both condemned the union's action, and vowed to pursue more legal action against it. "I have no doubt by working together we can and will get through this," Mr. Bloomberg said, before walking over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall from the city's emergency operations center in Brooklyn.

Across the city this morning, New York City Transit began to safely shut down the subways and buses, line by line. About 5,000 managers and supervisors, a fraction of the 47,000 workers, will remain on the job to maintain the system during the strike.

Classes at New York City schools were delayed by two hours.

Metro-North railroad and other regional trains were not directly affected by the strike action but they bring in thousands of commuters into the city who then must compete for seats on whatever modes of transportation they could find to reach their offices.

Streets were crowded with workers bundled up against the cold, with a wind chill of as low as 10 degrees Fahrenheit in the early morning hours. Cars were backed up at arteries leading onto the bridges, tunnels and major expressways that feed into Manhattan, as the police peered into cars to enforce the four-passenger rule, turning some away and letting others pass.

Although New Jersey Transit is running on schedule, commuters living west of the Hudson River coped with changes in their usual routines.

By 6 a.m., the Port Authority police had closed several lanes of traffic on the approaches to the Lincoln Tunnel and set up check points to make sure that all vehicles had at least four people in them. Commercial vehicles were turned back, because they are not being permitted into Manhattan before 11 a.m.

At the Port Authority Bus Terminal, lines for taxis were extremely long, even at 6:30 a.m., a time when there is usually no line. New Yorkers, meanwhile, headed into the dark streets to begin the process of finding ways to get to work, or wherever they needed to go. A transit worker who said he had just recently been hired to maintain subway cars drove through Brooklyn offering people rides to work. He picked up a woman on Washington Avenue and dropped her off at Empire Boulevard.

"She was helpless, she had bags," said the man, Samuel Gowrie, 51. "I just volunteered."

He said he did it from "the good of my heart. If someone offers me something, I am not turning it down. But I am not demanding or pursuing money."

At the corner of Cedar and Nassau Streets in the downtown financial district, Christian Kerr, 28, a foreign currency analyst , was assessing his options for getting to his office adjacent to Grand Central Terminal in midtown.

"I don't know how I'm going to get to work, honestly," he said. He thought he might take one of the ferries to the 30's and walk.

"It's a pain in the neck," he said. "I'm very anti-union, especially this time of year. It's ridiculous. If you look what they're asking for, that's 50 years ago. Pensions don't work like that anymore."

The Red Cross had a truck set up on the Manhattan side of the Williamsburg Bridge, with workers saying they would distribute coffee and cocoa to people walking from Brooklyn.

The union has repeatedly urged Gov. George E. Pataki to join the talks, trying to put the onus on him if there was a walkout. But the governor, like the mayor, said that the professionals at the authority should handle the talks.

In a radio interview this morning, John C. Liu, chairman of the City Council's Transportation Committee, said that because the two sides have failed to come together, someone else needs to step in. "I think the most appropriate person to do that I think would be Governor Pataki," he said. "I think he needs to understand how much this is affecting people and how much this is going to drain the economy of much-needed activities and revenues."

Workers at the Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road are not expected to strike in support of transit workers. Anthony J. Bottalico, the chairman of the union that represents Metro-North engineers, conductors and rail-traffic controllers, said Monday that none of his members planned to strike.

However, two other unions, which represent Metro-North ticket collectors and track workers, have vowed to show solidarity with Local 100 by refusing to cross picket lines, and they could conceivably delay, though not disrupt, regular train service.

Mr. Toussaint appealed for public support, acknowledging the tremendous inconvenience to millions of commuters and tourists. "To our riders, we ask for your understanding and forbearance. We stood with you to keep token booths open, to keep conductors on the trains, to oppose fare hikes," he said. "We now ask that you stand with us. We did not want a strike, but evidently the M.T.A., the governor and the mayor did."

Shortly after he spoke, Mr. Kalikow appeared before reporters to condemn the strike.

"The T.W.U.'s action today is illegal and irresponsible," he said, calling the walkout "a slap in the face to all M.T.A. customers and New Yorkers."

Mr. Kalikow said the authority and the state attorney general would go to state court to seek a contempt citation against the union. Last week, a state judge issued an injunction barring the transit workers from striking under the Taylor Law.

"I regret the enormous inconvenience this will impact on our customers," he said. "The M.T.A. has made every effort to resolve this dispute."

He said the authority had changed its offer so that it no longer demanded an increase in the retirement age. But he said the union rejected that proposal and never made a counteroffer.

Mr. Kalikow said he would guarantee the public that the authority would take every step "to bring this illegal action to an end as quickly as possible."

Mr. Bloomberg, appearing shortly after Mr. Kalikow, said he would ask the city's Corporation Counsel, Michael A. Cardozo, to join the transportation authority and the state attorney general in an emergency court hearing to hold the union in contempt and order severe fines against the union.

"The union must understand there are real and significant consequences to their action," he said. "For their own selfish reasons, the T.W.U. has decided that their demands are more important than the law, the city, and the people they serve. This is not only an affront to the concept of public service, it is a cowardly attempt by Roger Toussaint and the T.W.U. to bring the city to its knees to create leverage for its own bargaining positions."

He said the city must not let the inconveniences created by the strike stop the city's economy from running and stop its schools from functioning.

"I have no doubt by working together we can and will get through this," he said.

The vote by the union board came after a 12-hour round of intense negotiations between the two pivotal figures in the talks - Mr. Kalikow and Mr. Toussaint - who bargained face-to-face Monday for the first time since Friday.

But with just an hour to go before the deadline, Tom Kelly, an authority spokesman, said that efforts to settle the dispute had faltered after the union turned down what he called "a fair offer."

"Unfortunately, that offer has been rejected by the Transport Workers Union, and they have advised us that they were going - that they are going - to leave the building, and going to the union hall," Mr. Kelly said. "The M.T.A. remains ready to continue negotiations." Union officials would not discuss the developments as they headed into their private strategy session.

The transit agency plans to store the majority of the 6,300 subway cars underground, one next to another, to protect them from the elements. Supervisors will run empty trains over the rails to keep them polished and prevent rust.

On Monday night, work trains, including trains that collect trash and transport money and normally begin their runs between 8 and 10 p.m., were ordered out of service. General orders, which alter service so that tracks can be used for construction work, were suspended. The agency's Rail Control Center, in Downtown Brooklyn, was filled with managers and supervisors Monday night and this morning, continuously monitoring service. Starting in the late evening, the agency tried to place a supervisor on each train to ensure the train was safely operated until the completion of its run.

From the time the strike was declared at 3 a.m., it would take more than 2 hours for all the trains to complete their runs.

The bus system is relatively easier to shut down. The 4,600 buses were being returned to their 18 depots this morning, where they will be stored and guarded for the duration of the strike.

The transit union stepped up the pressure by beginning a strikeMonday morning against two Queens bus lines, stranding about 57,000 passengers in what the union portrayed as a prelude to shutting down the whole city transit system, the nation's largest.

The union first threatened to shut down the whole system on Friday, but pushed back the deadline to today, seemingly to increase its leverage by warning of a walkout the week before Christmas, one of the busiest weeks for retailers.

On Monday, at rallies outside the governor's office and in Queens alongside the striking bus workers, Mr. Toussaint and many union members trumpeted their defiance, insisting that it was more important to obtain what they viewed as a just contract than to obey the law barring strikes.

City officials have prepared an emergency plan that would increase ferry service, allow taxis to pick up multiple fares, close several streets to traffic except for buses and emergency vehicles, and prohibit cars with fewer than four passengers from entering Manhattan below 96th Street during the morning rush. The city is also deploying hundreds of police officers to secure subway entrances in the event of a walkout.

The transportation authority's 11th-hour offer included a 3 percent raise in the first year, 4 percent in the second year and 3.5 percent in the third year of a new contract, representatives on both sides said. Before Monday, it was offering 3 percent a year for three straight years.

Ann Farmer and Colin Moynihan contributed reporting for this article.

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