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Thursday, December 22, 2005

New York Transit Strike Ends After 3 Days - New York Times

New York Transit Strike Ends After 3 Days - New York Times

December 22, 2005
State Mediators Set Up Plan That Leads to End of 60-Hour Ordeal

New York City transit employees will return to work today and limited subway and bus service could resume within hours, officials from Transit Workers Union, Local 100, said at midafternoon.

The order to return to work came after the union's executive board voted 38 to 5, with two abstentions, to accept a preliminary framework of a settlement plan as a basis to end the walkout.

The framework had already been agreed to by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

State mediators devised the framework for a settlement after all-night negotiations with the union and the M.T.A.

"I'm pleased to announce that the Local 100 executive board just voted overwhelmingly to direct transit workers to return to work immediately and to resume bus and subway service throughout the five boroughs of New York City, and we thank riders for their patience and forbearance," President Roger Touissant said outside union headquarters this afternoon. "We will be providing various details regarding the outcome of this strike in the next several days."

A few minutes earlier, one of the executive board members, George Perlstein, who said he had voted against the settlement plan, angrily told reporters that the union had not achieved its goals.

"We got nothing. Absolutely nothing," he said.

It remains unclear when all subways and buses will start running again, but it could take up to 18 hours to fully restore service.

The resumption of bus and subway service would end a 60-hour ordeal for New Yorkers, in which residents - who are heavily dependent upon public transportation - resorted to walking, bicycling, hitchhiking and enduring traffic jams as early as 3:30 a.m. to get into Manhattan for work.

Word of a possible end to the strike began filtering out earlier in the day.

"Over the last 48 hours we have met separately with both T.W.U. and the M.T.A.," mediator Richard A. Curreri said at a news conference this morning.. "While these discussions have been fruitful, an agreement remains out of the parties' reach at this time. It is clear to us, however, that both parties have a genuine desire to resolve their differences."

Mr. Curreri added: "In the best interests of the public, which both parties serve, we have suggested, and they have agreed, to resume negotiations while the T.W.U. takes steps toward returning its membership to work."

The agreement, said several people close to the negotiations who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitive stage of the talks, would give every side some of what it asked for.

It would allow Gov. George E. Pataki to save face because the final negotiations would not take place until the strikers return to work, the people said, and it would apparently allow the union's president, Roger Toussaint, to save face because, they believe, the authority's pension demands - which are at the crux of the deadlock - have been significantly scaled back.

In light of the progress in negotiations, State Supreme Court Justice Theodore T. Jones delayed a hearing scheduled for this morning on possible fines and jail terms for union leaders under the Taylor Law, which prohibits strikes by public employees. The hearing was rescheduled for 4 p.m. today

In Albany, Governor Pataki hailed the progress, and credited the Taylor Law, which requires mediation once an impasse is declared.

"I just am pleased the Taylor Law, that sets up this process, was in this case followed by both sides and moved things forward in a positive way," Mr. Pataki said in a televised news conference.

Commuters, who have had to make it to work and home any way possible, also saw hope in the mediator's words.

"It's a small victory for sanity, which is a good thing in the holiday season," said Guy Molinari, 44, who commutes to Manhattan from Bergen County, New Jersey each day.

Mr. Curreri and two other mediators were appointed by the state's Public Employment Relations Board on Tuesday afternoon after the union declared a strike at 3 a.m. that day and the authority said the talks had reached an impasse.

Mr. Curreri, the board's director of conciliation, met with lawyers for the union that afternoon. Mr. Curreri also invited two veteran mediators - Martin F. Scheinman, a longtime arbitrator who has negotiated many labor agreements, and Alan R. Viani, the former chief negotiator at D.C. 37, the city's largest municipal workers union - to join him.

All three met with both sides for hours at a time on Wednesday and into the night. The authority's chairman, Peter S. Kalikow, and Mr. Toussaint both participated in the talks on Wednesday and early this morning.

Most of the system's 6,300 subway cars have been placed in underground tunnels or in train yards, one next to another, since the strike began. Supervisors have been running empty trains over the rails to keep the rails polished and prevent rust. The 4,600 buses have been stored and guarded at 18 depots.

Employees would have to return to their shifts, tracks and signals would have to be inspected, and subway cars and buses examined before the subways and buses could run.

If all employees promptly returned at the start of their next shift, some subways could begin to run eight hours after managers and supervisors get word that the strikers are returning, officials said.

The news is an abrupt change from Wednesday's developments, when a war of rhetoric surrounding the strike entered a louder and more contentious phase, with Mr. Toussaint demanding that thorny pension issues be removed from the table before the strikers returned to work. But Governor Pataki joined Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in saying that the transit workers must end the strike before negotiations could resume, contradicting the M.T.A.'s earlier position that it would talk anytime.

In addition to disagreements over pensions, the union and the M.T.A. have also had a difficult time on health care benefits. The transportation authority had originally demanded that future transit workers contribute 2 percent of their pay toward health premiums. It reduced that demand to 1 percent several days before the strike deadline, then dropped that demand altogether, just hours before the strike deadline. Current workers do not pay premiums for the union's basic health plan.

Mr. Toussaint's union has repeatedly said he would not agree to a contract that treated future workers worse than current workers - on pension or health insurance.

Several people close to the negotiations said they expected the two sides to discuss proposals to have the union agree to have all workers, current and future, pay health premiums

Repeatedly saying that he wants to beat back the wave of concessions demanded by managements across the country, Mr. Toussaint has also insisted that he would not agree to a contract that required all workers to pay health premiums.

On Wednesday, the authority took the highly unusual step of running television advertisements urging individual workers to return to their jobs.

Even so, there was evidence of a willingness to compromise, at least behind the scenes, as both sides met separately with state mediators the first possible step toward taking the dispute to arbitration. Mr. Toussaint attacked the mayor and the governor Wednesday for what he called the use of "insulting and offensive language," apparently referring to the mayor's characterization of the strike by the city's 33,700 subway and bus workers as "thuggish" and "selfish."

In a speech that belied the union's tenuous position - it is already being fined $1 million a day - Mr. Toussaint seemed to cast the conflict in a social-justice context. In describing the struggle of his largely minority union, he invoked the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, saying: "There is a higher calling than the law. That is justice and equality."

Despite Mr. Toussaint's vow not to return to the table until the pension demand was dropped, he and his top lawyers met with state mediators for hours at a time. State mediation could have either led to a solution to the differences, or forced the two sides to binding arbitration. While Mr. Toussaint reiterated his opposition to binding arbitration, he did not rule it out.

Mayor Bloomberg on Wednesday recited a litany of misery brought on by the strike: business was down 40 percent in some restaurants and 60 percent in some stores; home health aides were unable to reach their patients; people were delaying chemotherapy and radiation; the New York Blood Center declared a state of emergency; attendance at museums and theaters was down; the holiday crowds on Fifth Avenue had thinned.

After the first day of chaos, there were signs that systems were being fine-tuned and people were adapting. Some suburban trains took to skipping stops to get into Manhattan faster. Police checkpoints ran more smoothly.

Still, Wednesday's evening rush was as chaotic as Tuesday night's, with long lines almost everywhere.

The transit strike, the first in a quarter century, began at 3 a.m. Tuesday after negotiations between the union and the transit authority broke down over the authority's last-minute demand that all new transit workers contribute 6 percent of their wages toward their pensions - up from the 2 percent that current workers pay.

The authority has said it needs to rein in its soaring pension costs. Mr. Toussaint has argued that, under state law, it is illegal for the authority to insist on including a pension demand as part of a settlement.

On Wednesday, Justice Jones ordered the union leaders to appear in court to face contempt charges and possibly jail. He also agreed to consider a request by the city for a temporary restraining order, which could lead to strikers being assessed additional fines. Justice Jones brought up the possibility of jail for top union officials during proceedings in which James B. Henly, the lead state lawyer in the case, was seeking fines against Mr. Toussaint and two other officials of Local 100 - Ed Watt, the secretary-treasurer and Darlyne A. Lawson, the recording secretary.

The union's lawyer, Arthur Z. Schwartz, argued that the judge could not rule on the state's request for fines against the three officials because they were in mediation, and not present in court. Although he had not been asked by the state, the authority or the city to jail any union officials, Justice Jones said "one or more of these people could possibly be sent to jail" and agreed that they needed to be present.

Mr. Toussaint, at his news conference, reiterated the union's argument that the authority had forced the union to strike by illegally insisting on pension changes. Under the state's Taylor Law, one side cannot make pensions a condition of a settlement. But in 1994 and in 1999, both sides agreed on pension changes.

"We are prepared to resume negotiations, right away, right this minute," he said. "If the pension issue were taken off the table, that would form the basis for us to ask our members - to ask our executive board - to ask our members to go back to work."

Reporting for this article was contributed by Matthew Sweeney, Michael Cooper, Janon Fisher, Thomas J. Lueck, Jesse McKinley, Colin Moynihan, Fernanda Santos, Shadi Rahimi and Timothy Williams.

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