NEW YORK (Dec. 20) – Subways and buses ground to a halt Tuesday morning as transit workers walked off the job at the height of the holiday shopping and tourist season, forcing millions of riders to find new ways to get around.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who had said the strike would cost the city as much as $400 million a day, joined the throngs of people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge in the freezing cold as he walked from a Brooklyn emergency headquarters to City Hall. Other New Yorkers car-pooled or rode bicycles.
“I think they all should get fired,” said Eddie Goncalves, a doorman trying to get home after his overnight shift. He said he expected to spend an extra $30 per day in cab and train fares.
It is New York’s first citywide transit walkout since an 11-day strike in 1980, and officials said they would seek quick court action, which could include stiff fines. Pay raises and pension and health benefits for new hires are main sticking points.
Authorities began locking turnstiles and shuttering subway entrances shortly after the Transport Workers Union ordered the strike. The buses and subways, the nation’s largest transit system, serve 7 million riders a day.
At one subway booth, a handwritten sign read, “Strike in Effect. Station Closed. Happy Holidays!!!!” At Penn Station, an announcement over the loudspeaker told people to “please exit the subway system.”
Huge lines formed at ticket booths for the commuter railroads that stayed in operation, and Manhattan-bound traffic backed up at many bridges and tunnels as police turned away cars with fewer than four people. All the while, transit workers took to the picket lines with signs that read “We Move NY. Respect Us!”
Commuters, scrounging for ways to get to work, lined up for cabs and gathered in clusters on designated spots throughout the city for company vans and buses to shuttle them to their offices.
“There were hundreds of people waiting for cabs, pulling doors left and right,” said taxi driver Angel Aponte, who left his meter off and charged $10 per person.
Bloomberg has said the strike would be particularly harsh taking place during the holidays, predicting it would freeze traffic into “gridlock that will tie the record for all gridlocks.”
He began putting into effect a sweeping emergency plan, including the requirement that cars coming into Manhattan below 96th Street have at least four occupants.
The union called the strike after a late round of negotiations broke down Monday night. Union President Roger Toussaint said the union board voted overwhelmingly to call the strike.
“This is a fight over dignity and respect on the job, a concept that is very alien to the MTA,” Toussaint said. “Transit workers are tired of being underappreciated and disrespected.”
The news drew an angry response from the mayor, governor and head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
“This is not only an affront to the concept of public service, it is a cowardly attempt by Roger Toussaint and the TWU to bring the city to its knees to create leverage for their own bargaining position,” said Bloomberg at a news conference.
MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow called the strike “a slap in the face” to all New Yorkers and said lawyers will immediately head to court. It is illegal for mass transit workers to strike in New York, and the 33,000 bus and subway employees could face fines of two days’ pay for each day on strike.
“They have broken the trust of the people of New York,” said Gov. George Pataki. “They have not only endangered our city and state’s economy, but they are also recklessly endangering the health and safety of each and every New Yorker.”
MTA spokesman Tom Kelly said the agency “put a fair offer” on the table before talks broke down. “Unfortunately, that offer has been rejected.”
The union said the latest MTA offer included annual raises of 3 percent, 4 percent and 3.5 percent; the previous proposal included 3 percent raises each year. MTA workers earn around $47,000 to $55,000 annually.
But Toussaint said the union wanted a better offer from the MTA, especially when the agency has a $1 billion surplus this year.
“With a $1 billion surplus, this contract between the MTA and the Transport Workers Union should have been a no-brainer,” Toussaint said. “Sadly, that has not been the case.”
A key issue is the MTA’s proposal to raise the age at which new employees become eligible for full pension from 55 to 62, which the union says is unfair.
The down-to-the-wire negotiations came as workers at two private bus lines in Queens walked off the job, a move meant to step up pressure on the MTA.
The contract expired Friday at midnight, but the two sides agreed to keep talking through the weekend and the union set a new deadline for Tuesday.
Commuter frustration was evident both before the strike and after it was called.
Darryl Padilla, a 20-year-old club promoter, was trying to get on the train at Penn Station when he found out that the strike had begun. He didn’t have enough cash to take a cab to his home on the northern tip of Manhattan.
“I didn’t think they were going to shut down. I can’t take a cab,” he said.
“Enough is enough,” said Craig DeRosa, who relies on the subway to get to work. “Their benefits are as rich as you see anywhere in this country and they are still complaining. I don’t get it.”
Associated Press writers Samantha Gross and Sara Kugler contributed to this report.
12-20-05 06:16 EST
How much do you sympathize with the striking transit workers?
Not at all 58%
A lot 19%
How much do you sympathize with the transit authority?
Not at all 52%
A lot 14%
How much do you sympathize with the transit users?
A lot 89%
Not at all 4%