New Yorkers Adjust As Transit Strike Stymies Commutes

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A striking transit worker walks across the Brooklyn Bridge during the morning rush-hour. (Mario Tama - Getty Images)

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By Michelle Garcia and Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

NEW YORK, Dec. 20 -- The day the subway cars and buses stood still, New Yorkers got moving.

Millions of erstwhile straphangers waged their daily commute on foot, in-line skates, bicycles and motor scooters -- but rarely in anything as unfashionable as sneakers -- as they bundled up against the cold and shrugged off the city's first transit strike in 25 years.

Schools opened two hours late. Streets near the Brooklyn Bridge resembled a parking lot in morning rush hour. Drivers tried to pick up extra passengers to meet an emergency requirement that vehicles entering the city carry at least four people. Some businesses sent shuttle buses to ferry employees to work. Others stayed home to avoid the mess.

By the end of the day, any novelty associated with the unconventional commute had worn off. Nerves were frayed, night had fallen and commuters used to traveling underground faced a long trip home by what might be an unfamiliar surface route.

"It makes you confused," said Sera Hargrevas, an interior designer who figured she would walk 150 blocks before the day was done. "I can't deal with anything else but walking right now. Everything is so crowded. People are so angry -- they are hitting you and they don't even apologize. . . . I'm a little tense."

And that was just Day One. The walkout by the Transport Workers Union over pay raises, pensions and health benefits threatened to throw traffic into gridlock for days, torpedo the holiday shopping season and cost the city as much as $400 million a day in economic losses.

By afternoon a state judge had imposed a $1 million-a-day fine against the union local for violating a state law that bars public employees from striking. The union said it will appeal. Meanwhile, the state Public Employment Relations Board dispatched a mediator with the goal of kick-starting negotiations.

"This selfish strike is illegal," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (R) said in an afternoon news conference. "We live in a country of laws where there can be severe consequences for those who break them. Union members are no different. . . . You can't break the law and then use that as a negotiating tactic."

Union President Roger Toussaint said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, an agency with a $1 billion surplus, can do better by 34,000 workers who typically earn $35,000 to $55,000 annually while operating the nation's largest mass transportation system.

"This is a fight over whether hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement, over the erosion or eventual elimination of health benefit coverage for working people," Toussaint said in a written statement. "It is a fight over dignity and respect on the job. . . . Transit workers are tired at being under-appreciated and disrespected."

Commuters said they were the ones paying the price.

Aaron Profumo, 16, a high school student, had to walk much of the length of Manhattan from his home on the Upper West Side to Chinatown to catch a private bus for a previously planned trip to Delaware.

"I spent the last two hours walking and the first 30 minutes trying to figure out how to get there," Profumo said Tuesday afternoon as he reached the halfway point. "I had to ask somebody where Broadway was -- and I grew up here."

Mark Walter, a graphic designer who lives in New Jersey and works in Brooklyn, took a regional commuter train unaffected by the strike to Lower Manhattan, then walked several miles to his office.

"They're saying this is for everyone, but people can't get to their jobs or buy Christmas presents," said Walter, a Georgia native who believes only the union bosses benefit from the strike. "I'm from a right-to-work state, and they'd probably fire them."

Others sided with the strikers.

"I hope they get everything they ask for," said Larry Sullivan, a Macy's employee who said the strikers' plight was that of all working people in the city. "I see the union is giving a smack to the politicians and the upper echelons. Let them cripple the city. . . . Everything in the city goes up except my salary."

Subway conductor Juan Velasquez held a strike sign at the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge on Tuesday while his wife, a city bus driver, was a picket on Staten Island. They have a daughter at Columbia University and bills to pay but are ready to sacrifice for the strike, Velasquez said.

"I gathered the family and I said Christmas is on hold this year," he said. "Whatever Christmas money I worked hard for, it's being held to pay the bills."

The last transit strike was in April 1980, and it paralyzed the city for 11 days. The current labor dispute turns on pay raises, pension eligibility and whether transit workers will have to pick up a greater share of the costs of their health care and other benefits. Workers also have complained about MTA's efforts to expand job responsibilities to include cleaning, washing and maintenance.

After weeks of negotiations, the transit authority and the union failed to reach a new agreement before the latest contract expired Friday at midnight. The two sides continued talking through the weekend and the union set a new deadline for Tuesday, but negotiations broke down Monday night.

Late in the game, the MTA increased its offer, promising raises over the next three years of 3 percent, 4 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively. It had previously offered 3 percent a year. The new offer, however, also demanded that workers fund 6 percent of their retirement costs -- a change that would wipe out the higher raises.

There was a split within the famously fractious union over whether to strike. More militant local leaders argued that their leverage was greatest now, in the week leading to Christmas, with retailers and department store owners putting great pressure on the MTA to find a settlement. However, the international arm of the Transport Workers Union said it does not support the strike.

Lee reported from Washington. Staff writer Michael Powell in New York contributed to this report.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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