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Friday, December 16, 2005

N.Y. Transit Union Rejects Offer and Will Begin Limited Strike - New York Times

N.Y. Transit Union Rejects Offer and Will Begin Limited Strike - New York TimesDecember 16, 2005
N.Y. Transit Union Rejects Offer and Will Begin Limited Strike

After five hours of intense negotiations with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the transit workers' union decided this morning to delay for four days a decision on whether to strike the New York City subway and bus system, but to start an immediate strike against two private bus companies in Queens that are being transferred to the authority's control.

The authority, which had offered two 3 percent raises over 27 months, raised its offer today to 3 percent in each of the next 3 years. It also agreed to lower its demand, to 1 percent from 2 percent, for the proportion of earnings that it wants new employees to pay toward health-care premiums. But it refused to budge on its insistence that new workers reach age 62 before being able to collect full pensions, compared with age 55 for most current workers.

At 6:30 a.m. today, the union's executive board rejected that offer and agreed to set a new strike deadline of 12:01 a.m. Tuesday. For millions of riders, the decision prolonged uncertainty about whether the nation's largest transit system will be shut down by a labor strike for the first time since 1980.

The union, Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, immediately began a strike at Jamaica Buses, which operates 6 local routes and 1 express route, and at the Triboro Coach Corporation, which operates 13 local routes and 6 express routes. The union represents 217 workers at Jamaica Buses, based in Jamaica, Queens, and 490 workers at Triboro, based in Flushing, Queens.

Jamaica Buses has about 15,000 riders each weekday, while Triboro has about 42,000. If there is no bus service on the lines, city-licensed commuter vans along those routes will be permitted to charge up to $5 a person and taxis will be allowed to charged up to $10 a person.

Roger Toussaint, the union's president, and Peter S. Kalikow, the authority's chairman, met at 11 p.m. last night for the first time in the labor talks, just one hour before the union's three-year contract expired at 12:01 this morning.

The key sticking point, according to several union officials, is the authority's proposal that new employees reach age 62 before being able to collect a full pension. Since 1994, the vast majority of transit employees have been able to collect a regular pension at age 55 if they have 25 years of experience.

Mr. Toussaint presented the authority's new proposal at 6 a.m. to the 46-member executive board, which is the union's governing body. The board approved, by a vote of 25 to 14, a resolution authorizing the strike at Jamaica and Triboro and postponing a broader strike until Tuesday. Two members abstained.

At a news conference, Mr. Toussaint said that the union had been repeatedly "provoked" and that "we have been left with no choice" but to strike.

Mr. Toussaint criticized Mr. Kalikow for coming to the negotiating table so late in the talks, which formally began on Oct. 14. "One hour for 34,000 workers - that was the M.T.A.'s idea of good-faith bargaining," Mr. Toussaint said.

The M.T.A. has issued no comments since the talks were suspended today.

As talks have faltered over the past few days, the union has repeatedly portrayed the authority as forcing its back to the wall.

"We tried to bargain with the M.T.A.," Mr. Toussaint said this morning. "We negotiated well past our contractual deadline, because we wanted to get a deal done, and we still do. However, the M.T.A. is insisting on a contract that would leave the next generation of transit workers way behind - a contract that would put a lock and key on transit workers' access to the middle class."

The decision to begin a strike at the two Queens bus companies may be part of a legal strategy.

Jamaica and Triboro are among seven private bus companies that have received city subsidies since 1974. In 2002, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced his intention to end the subsidies and transfer the companies to the authority's direct control.

So far, four of the seven companies have been transferred. Jamaica Buses is to be transferred on Jan. 30, and Triboro on Feb. 20. A third company, Green Bus Lines, is to be transferred on Jan. 9, but its members are represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union.

Because the transfers of Jamaica and Triboro have yet to take effect, union lawyers believe the state's Taylor Law, a 1967 statute prohibiting strikes by public employees, does not apply. The state has received an injunction barring the union from striking the city's subways and buses, but whether that injunction applies to private bus lines that are soon to be public is not clear.

Local 100 represents 1,800 workers at five of the seven private bus companies, and the workers' last contract expired on March 31, 2003.

The union has insisted that those workers have a new contract at the same time as the 33,700 subway and bus workers have theirs.

Riders expressed relief that trains and buses were operating this morning, but braced themselves for the possibility of a strike next week.

Calvin Marte, 17, who was on his way to Norman Thomas High School on 33rd Street said that if the workers went on strike, he would be forced to walk to school because he could not afford the cab fare from Washington Heights to midtown.

"I'm sort of mad and sort of glad about the strike," he said. "I'm mad because I have to worry about how I'm going to get to school and I'm glad because at least the people who work for the subways might be able to get more money, because they have families, too."

Ati Lagos, 20, a recruiter for a political nonprofit group, said she rides the subway every day to recruit college students at Columbia University and New York University.

If there is a strike, she said, she will ride her bike to get around. "I was expecting it to happen today, and it didn't," she said. "I think it might not happen at all in the city because there's always threats and then nothing happens."

Dan Kinckiner, 42, who lives in Long Island, rides the Long Island Rail Road each day, then uses the subways to visit clients in the city. He said a strike would prove a hardship for him and for the other employees in his company, which provides security and investigative services.

"I'll be walking a lot more," he said. "I think it's a shame. I think both parties are wrong."

Michael Stoner, 42, said he made a special effort to wake up at 5:30 a.m. to watch the news. "I heard three words: `No strike yet' and said, `Oh good, I'll go back to sleep.' " The Westchester County resident, on the 8:46 a.m. train to Grand Central, said he was "dreading" a strike, and planned to work at a client office in midtown Manhattan rather than make his usual trek to Chelsea.

After spending the night in the city's Emergency Management Center in Brooklyn, Mayor Bloomberg returned to his home on the Upper East Side then took the subway to City Hall this morning. He said: "The trains were running fine this morning when I took them down. I took the train today. I take the train every day."

The intense overnight negotiations stood in contrast to much of the day on Thursday, when the mood at the talks at the Grand Hyatt hotel seemed bleak, with each side issuing harsh public statements and clinging vigorously to long-held positions.

The fissure seemed especially deep around 11 p.m. when a series of news conferences added a new level of tension to the already strained negotiations. Mr. Toussaint said union leaders had been called to an executive session with the transportation authority's top officials.

"As of this moment, we have no progress to report, and that's not good, because we have precious little time left before the deadline approaches," he said. "While we have precious little time, there still is time, and T.W.U. Local 100 is prepared in good faith to work with all our heart and soul to come to a resolution."

He was joined by the heads of several other major city unions, who criticized the transportation authority's efforts to give future transit workers a less generous pension and health benefits. Their appearance prompted an angry retort by the authority's top negotiator, Gary Dellaverson, who left the negotiating session to respond.

"To begin to characterize these negotiations as some broad-based attack on the labor movement or on working people in this city is simply wrong," Mr. Dellaverson said.

Chafing at the authority's demands for concessions on pensions and health insurance, officials with Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union talked seriously about calling a strike.

Mr. Toussaint sounded pessimistic in a brief news conference earlier, saying that there was no progress in the talks. "There's always time, but things look less than 50-50 at this point," he said.

Tom Kelly, the authority's spokesman, sounded more optimistic on Thursday, saying some progress was being made.

Mayor Bloomberg issued an executive order last night, declaring a state of emergency in the event of a transit strike. He has announced a far-reaching emergency plan to increase ferry service, allow taxis to pick up multiple fares, and close much of Manhattan to cars during the morning rush unless they have at least four passengers.

As the two sides held high-level talks and a dozen related talks on subsidiary issues, millions of transit riders remained in suspense about whether the nation's largest transit system would be shut down for the first time in 25 years.

Each side repeatedly made public statements, aimed seemingly as much for the television cameras as for the other side.

On Thursday morning, Mr. Kalikow said that if the union was unhappy with its offer, it should make its case to an impartial arbitrator. Mr. Toussaint shot down that idea because it would deny the union's rank and file the opportunity to vote on a contract.

Later in the day, Mr. Toussaint expressed disappointment that Mr. Kalikow had not yet joined the bargaining. In the last contract talks, three years ago, Mr. Kalikow joined the negotiations hours before the contract deadline and helped make pivotal decisions, including sweetening the authority's offer, to avoid a strike.

Also in the afternoon, Gov. George E. Pataki strongly warned the transit workers not to strike.

Speaking at 7 World Trade Center, Mr. Pataki said: "If they break the law, they will suffer the consequences of breaking the law. I have three simple words: Don't do it. It is illegal. There's a reason it's illegal, because it not just causes inconvenience or economic loss; it poses a serious threat to the health and safety of people who need to get somewhere for emergency services or for medical treatment."

The last time the transit workers walked out was in April 1980, with an 11-day strike. Few current workers remember the pain that the strike caused the city or the sting of the fines the strikers paid.

"The M.T.A.'s long-term financial outlook, like every business and government in this country, is seriously clouded by the extraordinary growth in pensions and health-care costs," Mr. Kalikow said. "It might be easy to ignore this fact, but that would be a disservice to both our riders and the city, now and still unborn."

Mr. Toussaint portrayed the authority's proposals as repugnant because they would make life worse for future generations of workers.

"They have to get away from the notion that in this round of bargaining the T.W.U. will give up its young, will give up its unborn," he said.

Accusing the transportation authority of mismanaging its pension funds and not putting enough money into them, Mr. Toussaint said the agency, despite having a $1 billion surplus, was trying to put the burden of fixing its pension problems on the shoulders of newly hired workers.

But the authority warned that it faced an $800 million deficit in 2008, caused in large part by fast-rising pension and health costs.

"I sincerely hope that the T.W.U. soon comes to appreciate that we are trying to address these critical issues in the least disruptive way," Mr. Kalikow said.

Timothy Williams, Maria Newman, Maria Aspan, Shadi Rahimi, Ann Farmer, Marek Fuchs and Colin Moynihan contributed reporting for this article.

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