NYC Commuters Coping With Transit Strike By DESMOND BUTLER, Associated Press Writer
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 as he walked from a Brooklyn emergency headquarters to City Hall.
"It's a form of terrorism, if you ask me," said Maria Negron, who walked across the bridge. "I hope they go back to work."
Other New Yorkers car-pooled or rode bicycles in the cold; early-morning temperatures were in the 20s.
With traffic rules in place to prevent gridlock, the city survived the morning rush without the feared chaos. Manhattan streets were unusually quiet; some commuters just stayed home. People who were going holiday shopping went the best way they could.
Officials said they would seek quick court action, and about eight hours after the strike began, a closed-door meeting about the walkout was under way in a Brooklyn courtroom. It is illegal for mass transit workers to strike in New York, and the 33,000 employees could face fines of two days' pay for each day on strike.
It was New York's first citywide transit walkout since an 11-day strike in 1980. Pay raises and pension and health benefits for new hires were main sticking points.
"I'm not happy about this," said Yvette Vigo, whose teeth were chattering after she walked a couple of miles to pick up a company-run shuttle bus at Wall Street. "It's too cold to walk this far."
Authorities began locking turnstiles and shuttering subway entrances shortly after the Transport Workers Union ordered the strike. The nation's largest mass transit system counts each fare as a rider, giving it more than 7 million riders each day -- although many customers take a daily round trip.
At one subway booth, a handwritten sign read "Strike in Effect. Station Closed. Happy Holidays!!!!"
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!"
"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.
Commuters 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.
"It doesn't seem right to tie up the cultural and investment center of the world," said Larry Scarinzi, 72, a retired engineer from Whippany, N.J., waiting for a cab outside Penn Station. "They're breaking the law. They're tearing the heart out of the nation's economy."
Bloomberg, who had predicted "gridlock that will tie the record for all gridlocks," put into effect a sweeping emergency plan, including the requirement that cars coming into Manhattan below 96th Street have at least four occupants. As he walked across the bridge, he smiled, admired the view and called the strike "outrageous."
The union called the strike around 3 a.m. after a late round of negotiations with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority 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."
MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow called the strike "a slap in the face" to all New Yorkers, and Gov. George Pataki said the workers were "recklessly endangering the health and safety of each and every New Yorker."
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 typically earn from $35,000 as a starting salary to about $55,000 annually.
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 was the MTA's proposal to raise the age at which new employees become eligible for a full pension from 55 to 62, which the union says is unfair. The MTA later agreed to allow pension eligibility at 55 for new employees, but they would be asked to pay more out of their salaries.
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. The citywide strike was preceded by a walkout Monday by two private bus lines in Queens.
Commuter frustration was evident both before the strike and after it was called.
"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 David B. Caruso, Verena Dobnik, Samantha Gross and Sara Kugler contributed to this report.
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I recall when several years ago, the staff at Cook County Hospital in Chicago went on strike after Cook County tried to change their working conditions in an unfair way. A judge (get this! yuk yuk!) ordered them to go back to work or get fined, etc. Their representative told the court, "we will not accept any punishment from this court! I will simply suggest to all employees that they resign their jobs effective immediatly. Then you won't have any healthcare workers at all and see where that gets you!" The judge replied, "you will all be in contempt in that case." The judge was told "slavery in the United States was long ago abolished. You cannot _force_ people to go to certain jobs." The judge agreed that was the case (slavery no longer allowed) and that the county would have to replace all the employees (if that was at all practical or possible). The worker's representative said "you can do that, alright, but eventually this strike will end and all our workers will have to 'reapply' for new jobs, and of course in your desire to get hospital functions up and running again, whom do you suppose would be the ones to get hired?"
I think Mayor Bloomberg (and he is not _my_ mayor, I do not live there) made a fatal mistake by going to court Tuesday morning to force workers back on the job with threats of fines and jail. He has caused so much ill-will things will never get back to normal, if they ever were. PAT]