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Published: Wednesday, 12/21/2005

Pressure on transit union increases as New Yorkers deal with Day 2 of strike


NEW YORK Threatened with huge fines and possible jail time, the city s transit union suggested today that it would be willing to end a strike that has shut down bus and subway service for two days if the city drops its plan for changing workers pensions.

The contract covering 33,000 New York transit workers expired last week, and the union called the strike Tuesday morning despite a state law banning public employee strikes.

According to the union president, the sticking point is a proposed change in pensions.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority s last contract proposed maintaining a retirement age of 55 but increasing what new hires contribute to the pension plan. New employees would pay 6 percent of their wages during their first 10 years, rather than the current 2 percent.

Were it not for the pension piece, we would not be out on strike, Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Roger Toussaint said in an interview with New York-based all-news channel NY1. All it needs to do is take its pension proposal off the table.

As the strike proceeded through a second day today, state Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones ordered Toussaint and two of his deputies to court Thursday morning to face criminal contempt charges for ordering the illegal walkout.

Jones has already imposed $1 million-a-day fines on the union, and he could impose individual fines on union leaders and workers as well.

New York s attorney general has asked Jones to fine union officials, and Jones said it was a distinct possibility that he could jail them for defying a court order barring the strike.

Union lawyer Arthur Schwartz warned that hauling Toussaint into court would halt the state-supervised mediation and could make a settlement even more difficult.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg also said he didn t think jail was appropriate.

The fines are what is going to hurt. Fines don t make you a martyr and fines you don t get back, he said.

Lawyers for the city began a separate legal proceeding to turn the financial screws on rank-and-file union members, a move that could bring them to court to face charges of civil contempt.

Michael A. Cardozo, New York City s corporation counsel, asked the judge to issue a second order directing union members to return to work. If such an order were ignored, Cardozo said the city could ask for heavy fines per worker a punishment beyond the docked-pay penalty workers already face.

The fines, at the judge s discretion, could range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars and would come out of the workers own pockets rather than union coffers.

We re doing everything possible to make the union obey the law, the judge said, adding that union members need to realize the economic consequences of their actions.

As millions of New Yorkers trudged to and from work today some walking miles, others riding bicycles and in-line skates in the morning s 24-degree chill the war of words between Bloomberg and the union continued.

It needs to end, and it needs to end right now, Bloomberg said in a news conference today, repeatedly lashing out at what he called an illegal, selfish strike and questioning how union leaders could claim their walkout would benefit the working class.

Working people are the ones who are being hurt, Bloomberg said. The busboy is getting hurt, the garment industry worker is getting hurt, the owners of mom and pop businesses. ... The ones getting hurt the most are the ones who can least afford it. If they don t get paid, they don t eat.

The strike was responsible for a 40 percent decline in business at restaurants, an 80 percent decline in visitors at museums, and a 90 percent decline in customers at the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn, the mayor said. He estimated the city s lost revenue at $300 million to $400 million a day.

Toussaint quarreled with the mayor s saying that union leaders had thuggishly turned their backs on New York.

We wake up at 3 and 4 in the morning to move the trains in this town, Toussaint said. That s not the behavior of thugs and selfish people.

The judge said he hoped there might be a breakthrough in the mediated talks overnight. Still, the city was making plans to serve legal papers ordering union members to return to work, if approved by Jones, whenever they might be found, from picket lines to homes.

Bill McRae, a bus driver since 1985, said he thought negotiations should have continued but he still backed the walkout.

The union executives called for a strike, and we have to do what we have to do, McRae said on Manhattan s West Side. The last city transit strike was in 1980 and lasted 11 days.

Transit officials said about 1,000 transit workers came to work Tuesday, and that they were put to work cleaning and doing paperwork. Toussaint adamantly denied that so many people had crossed the picket line.

On the streets today, commuters struggled through the first day of winter.

At Pennsylvania Station, railroad officials used bullhorns to corral people trying to board the commuter train lines and closed off a city block to line people up. At Grand Central Terminal, more than 1,000 people pushed to get on shuttle trains to the Bronx.

Isaac Flores, who works at a law firm in midtown, was part of a complicated, four-person car pool.

They re too spoiled, Flores said of the transit workers. They want to retire at age 55. They re making more money than a cop.

Myra Sanoguet, who was with him, said they saw a group of pickets during the drive. Just briefly, we were thinking about running them over, she said.

Read more in later editions of The Blade and toledoblade.com.

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