Transit strike strands New York commuters; judge imposes $1 million-a-day fine
NEW YORK – Commuters trudged through the freezing cold, rode bicycles and shared cabs Tuesday as New York’s bus and subway workers went on strike for the first time in more than 25 years and stranded millions of riders at the height of the Christmas rush. A judge slapped the union with a $1 million-a-day fine.The sanction was levied against the Transport Workers Union for violating a state law that bars public employees from going on strike. The city and state had asked that the union be hit with a “very potent fine.””This is a very, very sad day in the history of labor relations for New York City,” State Justice Theodore Jones said in imposing the fine.The union said it would immediately appeal, calling the penalty excessive.The strike over wages and pensions came just five days before Christmas, at a time when the city is especially busy with shoppers and tourists.The heavy penalty could force the union off the picket lines and back on the job. Under the law, the union’s 33,000 members will also lose two days’ pay for every day they are on strike, and they could also be thrown in jail.The courtroom drama came midway through a day in which the walkout fell far short of the all-out chaos that many had feared. With special traffic rules in place, the morning rush came and went without monumental gridlock. Manhattan streets were unusually quiet; some commuters just stayed home.The nation’s biggest mass-transit system ground to a halt after 3 a.m., when the union called the strike after a late round of negotiations with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority broke down. The subways and buses provide more than 7 million rides per day.New Yorkers car-pooled, shared taxis, rode bicycles, roller-skated or walked in the freezing cold. Early morning temperatures were in the 20s. Mayor Michael Bloomberg joined the throngs of people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge by foot.”Hey, can I get a ride?” Jay Plastino asked a neighbor near his home in the northern tip of Manhattan. Plastino, who was headed to his midtown job, was angry at the union: “This is a big city. Don’t they realize that?”By Tuesday’s evening rush hour, crowds were thick at both Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal as commuters waited for trains on the two suburban rail lines, where ridership had soared earlier in the day. The Long Island Rail Road, operating out of Penn Station, carried 50,000 more passengers above its usual 100,000.Gov. George Pataki said the union acted illegally and “will suffer the consequences.” But union attorney Arthur Schwartz accused the MTA of provoking the strike.No negotiations were scheduled between the two sides, although a mediator from a state labor board was meeting with both union and MTA officials Tuesday afternoon.The MTA asked the Public Employment Relations Board to formally declare an impasse, the first step toward forcing binding arbitration of the contract, said James Edgar, the board’s executive director.It was the city’s first transit strike since an 11-day walkout in 1980, which happened in much warmer April weather. The effect this time, however, was tempered by the advent of personal computers, which enabled many commuters to stay home and work via the Internet.Others boarded water taxis along the Hudson River, or jumped into carpools. Many lined up in the cold to await private buses arranged by their employers, or shared yellow cabs with strangers. There was a minimum $10 fee for cab riders.”The city is functioning, and functioning well considering the severe circumstances,” the mayor said. The union “shamefully decided they don’t care about the people they work for, and they have no respect for the law. Their leadership thuggishly turned its back on New York City. This strike is costing us.”Jack Akameiza, 66, was trying to figure out a way to go the nine miles from Manhattan to Coney Island. “I cannot go to work,” he said. “I cannot take care of my family.”Some commuters were upset at the union, others with management. Some, as they made their way to work, blamed both sides.”It’s two arrogant groups not caring that 7 million people are inconvenienced,” said Kenny Herbert, 45, of Brooklyn, who took the train to work Monday night but needed a water taxi across the East River to get home.On the picket lines, transit workers expressed outrage at the MTA.”We’re tired of being treated like we’re the garbage of the city,” said Angel Ortiz, 32, standing on the Bronx-Manhattan border with hundreds of other striking transit workers beneath an elevated rail line that carried no trains.The International TWU, the union’s parent, had urged the local not to go on strike. Its president, Michael O’Brien, reiterated Tuesday that the striking workers were legally obligated to resume working. The only way to a contract, he said, is “not by strike but continued negotiation.”The first day of the strike was expected to cost the city $400 million in revenue, with an additional loss of $300 million per day afterward, according to the city comptroller’s office. Countless stores and restaurants were affected.The mayor put into effect a sweeping emergency plan, including a requirement that cars entering Manhattan below 96th Street have at least four occupants.Lorraine Hall came to New York expecting a lighthearted celebration of her 65th birthday, but the lack of mass transit put a damper on the occasion. She was determined to make the best of it until her departure on Friday.”I didn’t come up here to sit in a hotel room, and as long as my two feet are letting me push it, I’m going to push it,” said Hall, who lives in Lancaster, S.C.The union said the latest MTA offer included annual raises of 3 percent, 4 percent and 3.5 percent. Pensions were another major sticking point in the talks, particularly involving new employees.”Were it not for the pension piece, we would not be out on strike,” union President Roger Toussaint said Tuesday in an interview with the New York-based all-news channel NY1. “All it needs to do is take its pension proposal off the table.”The contract expired Friday at midnight, but the two sides had continued talking through the weekend.