Wednesday, December 21, 2005

'Illegal' Transit Strike Puts New Yorkers Out in the Cold
Commuters struggle to get around without subways and buses. The union is to be fined $1 million each day of the massive walkout.
By Josh Getlin
Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The nation's largest transit system ground to a halt Tuesday as more than 33,000 New York bus and subway workers went on strike — snarling traffic, disrupting commerce and forcing about 7 million commuters to find alternative ways of getting around.

After weeks of bargaining, members of Transport Workers Union Local 100 walked off their jobs at 3 a.m., with union leaders vowing to strike until their demands for better wages and pension benefits were met.

City and state officials criticized the action — which comes amid the busy holiday season — as a violation of state law; they persuaded a judge to fine the union $1 million a day for contempt of court.

On a bitterly cold day, New Yorkers awoke to a transit nightmare. Many were forced to walk long distances to their jobs, some sought rides in cars from strangers, and traffic backed up for miles. Other people simply stayed home.

Public schools remained open, but classes began two hours later than usual.

"New Yorkers are resilient, and they will get through this," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said as he and thousands of others trudged to work over the Brooklyn Bridge. "This strike is illegal, it is reprehensible and it is cowardly."

Gov. George E. Pataki, who controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — the agency in charge of setting transit worker wages — said there would be no further negotiations with the striking union members until they returned to their jobs.

"The TWU has broken the law," Pataki said. "That is wrong, it is unacceptable, and they will suffer the consequences."

Union local President Roger Toussaint, charging that the MTA had not bargained in good faith, said: "We are fighting for dignity and respect…. We are also fighting for the future of our union."

The job action was the city's first transit strike in 25 years.

In a hearing that lasted five hours, state Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones imposed the $1-million-a-day fine on the union. Under state law, striking workers are to be fined two days' pay for each day they are out on strike. Union leaders could also face jail time.

At an afternoon news conference, Bloomberg excoriated the transit workers for also inflicting economic pain on New York. Although he said his statistics were "big-picture numbers," he estimated that the first day of the strike would cost New York businesses $400 million.

"The economic consequences have ranged from severe to devastating, depending on the business," he said. "Retail in Lower Manhattan has been hit the hardest. Hundreds of stores have been unable to open. Along one stretch of Eighth Avenue, 40% of the stores weren't even open."

As hopes for a settlement faded Monday night, New Yorkers made contingency plans to get around the city.

In recent weeks, Bloomberg had outlined emergency measures that would take effect in the event of a strike, and their effect became apparent during the morning rush hour.

During the strike, cars entering Manhattan below 96th Street between 5 and 11 a.m. have to carry at least four passengers. During this time, taxis will be allowed to pick up multiple fares, and cabbies can charge each passenger a flat fee of $10, plus $5 for every additional transit zone they pass through. Normally, the fare is $2.50 plus mileage.

The result, for many travelers, was chaos. Cars were backed up for six miles at the Lincoln Tunnel, the George Washington Bridge and other river crossings. Although some parts of Midtown Manhattan experienced light traffic, other areas were clogged with automobiles. Portions of major business arteries like Madison and Fifth avenues were off-limits to motorists Tuesday, reserved for emergency vehicles.

"This is so New York; this is a travesty," Diana Kraus fumed as she sat in traffic for an hour just north of 96th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side. She said she was trying to take her child to school, about 20 blocks down Broadway. But there were only three people in her car, not enough to pass a police checkpoint.

As she inched along, Kraus called out to pedestrians: "Do you want a ride? I'll give you a ride!" Traffic was backed up for at least 30 blocks, police said.

Finally, a woman across the street hurried into Kraus' car. Sylvia Brown, a banker's assistant, had been freezing in the cold and was grateful for the ride.

"She is my new best friend," Kraus said. "This is insane."

The transit workers initially sought a 24% wage increase over three years; the MTA offered them 10%. State officials also want future transit employees to pay for part of their health benefits, a proposal the union staunchly opposes. No money is taken out of workers' paychecks for healthcare now.

Flanked by angry co-workers, Toussaint said Tuesday morning that the agency had a billion-dollar surplus this year but refused to spend it on a generous settlement.

"With such a surplus, these contract talks should have been a no-brainer," he said. "But sadly, that was not the case."

Transit workers put up picket lines at bus depots and subway yards throughout the city. They held signs reading: "We Move NY, Respect Us"; and chanted: "No contract, no work!" At one subway booth on the Upper West Side, a handwritten sign posted by transit workers read: "Strike in Effect. Station Closed. Happy Holidays!!!"

Throughout the day, New Yorkers struggled to adjust to life without bus and subway service.

Andre St. Victor, a veteran cab driver, said the morning rush hour had given him a financial windfall. "Business has been very good for me so far today," he said as his car radio played "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." But, he added, "it's been very bad for the city."

For Said Bahig, a coffee and doughnut vendor, the strike cut his business in half. Many people who normally would have lined up for cups of coffee and cheese Danishes on a freezing morning did not come by, he said.

He shook his head at the sight of so many New Yorkers walking down Broadway trying to find rides to work: "There's a lot of argument over this [strike]," he said. "I am not taking sides."

Many others, however, had no trouble expressing an opinion.

"If I was a member of the transit workers union, I would have walked out too," said Michael Berkowitz, a history teacher at a private school who had the day off. "Once you start giving back pension benefits you've won, there's no going back."

Nearby, Robyn Sandberg, an architect who was desperately trying to find a ride to her office 70 blocks away, was irate.

"I support the idea of a union," she said. "But I don't think they have the right to bring 7 million commuters to their knees. I don't think anyone has that right."

Many Midtown shops and restaurants were closed Tuesday because their employees couldn't make it to work.

At Le Chateau, a sporty clothing store on 34th Street near Herald Square, manager Dany Vaillancourt glumly surveyed the lunchtime crowd — or rather, the lack of it. A handful of patrons were in the store during what would normally be a rush hour for holiday shoppers.

"This is Dec. 20," he said. "The store should be full."

"If the strike only lasted a day, it wouldn't kill my season — but it's already killed my week," Vaillancourt said, estimating Tuesday's business would be off 50% from the same day a year ago. "At this time of year, every single day is important," he said.

Times staff writer Thomas Mulligan contributed to this report.

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