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Transit Union Calls for Strike in Divided Vote

December 20, 2005
Transit Union Calls for Strike in Divided Vote

Leaders of the transit workers' union rejected the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's latest contract offer last night, and voted to call a strike shortly after 1 a.m., according to two members of the union's executive board. But the vote to call a strike was not unanimous, and so for at least a half an hour after the formal vote, union leaders remained divided on whether to actually proceed with the walkout.

Adding to the confusion, the president of the Transport Workers Union of America, the parent union for the city's transit workers, told the local executive board he could not support a strike, the two members said. They said that the president, Michael T. O'Brien, said he believed that the transportation authority might change its offer, and he urged the union to re-enter the talks.

A transit strike, the city's first in a quarter century, would prevent people from going to work, cause hundreds of millions of dollars in economic damage and upend the life of the city in the week before Christmas.

The vote by the union board came after a 12-hour round of intense negotiations between the two pivotal figures in the talks - Peter S. Kalikow, the transportation authority's chairman, and Roger Toussaint, president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union - who bargained face-to-face yesterday for the first time since Friday.

But with just an hour to go before the deadline, Tom Kelly, an authority spokesman, said that efforts to settle the dispute had faltered after the union turned down what he called "a fair offer."

"Unfortunately, that offer has been rejected by the Transport Workers Union, and they have advised us that they were going - that they are going - to leave the building, and going to the union hall," Mr. Kelly said. "The M.T.A. remains ready to continue negotiations." Union officials would not discuss the developments as they headed into their private strategy session.

The developments capped a day in which the transit union stepped up the pressure by beginning a strike yesterday morning against two Queens bus lines, stranding about 57,000 passengers in what the union portrayed as a prelude to a strike that would shut down the nation's largest transit system.

The union first threatened to shut down the whole system on Friday, but pushed back the deadline to today, seemingly to increase its leverage by warning of a walkout the week before Christmas, one of the busiest weeks for retailers. The state's Taylor Law prohibits strikes by public employees and carries penalties of two days' pay for each day on strike.

As a result of all the threats and deadlines, many New Yorkers for the second straight week felt wildly off balance, straining to figure out how their children would get to school and how they would get to work or to doctors' appointments.

Some New Yorkers backed the transit workers, some saw them as greedy lawbreakers, and some said that both sides in the negotiations deserved the public's disdain.

Warning that a strike would be illegal, Gov. George E. Pataki and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg stepped up their campaign to pressure the union, with the mayor saying that a strike would be "reprehensible."

"The city and state and courts - everybody is going to enforce the law, and anybody that thinks that they can just go break the law is sadly mistaken," Mr. Bloomberg said. "There can be no winners in a strike - it's not going to force the M.T.A. to make a settlement. If anything, it's going to probably dig them in."

At rallies outside the governor's office and in Queens alongside the striking bus workers, Mr. Toussaint and many union members trumpeted their defiance, insisting that it was more important to obtain what they viewed as a just contract than to obey the law barring strikes.

"Unless there is substantial movement by the authority, trains and buses will come to a halt as of midnight tonight," he said at a rally for the bus workers in East Elmhurst, Queens.

With anger in his voice, he added, "We maintain, as we have in the past week, that threats are not going to produce a contract and are not going to work against us." Later, at a rally outside the governor's office in Manhattan, he sought to justify a walkout by saying, "There's a calling that is higher than the law, and that's the calling of justice."

City officials have prepared an emergency plan that would increase ferry service, allow taxis to pick up multiple fares, close several streets to traffic except for buses and emergency vehicles, and prohibit cars with fewer than four passengers from entering Manhattan below 96th Street during the morning rush. The city is also deploying hundreds of police officers to secure subway entrances in the event of a walkout.

The transportation authority's 11th-hour offer included a 3 percent raise in the first year, 4 percent in the second year and 3.5 percent in the third year of a new contract, representatives on both sides said. Before yesterday, it was offering 3 percent a year for three straight years.

The authority dropped its demand to raise the retirement age for a full pension to 62 for new employees, up from 55 for current employees. But the authority proposed that all future transit workers pay 6 percent of their wages toward their pensions, up from the 2 percent that current workers pay.

The transportation authority asserts that it needs to bring its soaring pension costs under control to stave off future deficits. But union leaders vow that they will not sell out future transit workers by saddling them with lesser benefits.

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Toussaint hinted at some movement in the talks at the Grand Hyatt hotel, saying that the union would reduce its wage demands to 6 percent a year, from 8 percent a year, if the authority promised to reduce the number of disciplinary actions brought against transit workers. The authority has offered raises of 3 percent a year for three years.

The union began its strike against two Queens bus lines, Jamaica Buses Inc. and Triboro Coach Corporation, in the hope of pressuring the authority to reach an overall settlement. The walkout angered many Queens commuters and caused many to squeeze into vans and taxis.

The 707 workers at the two bus companies have been without a contract for 33 months. The authority is taking control of those two companies and five others, and union officials assert that the strike against the companies is not prohibited because the authority has not taken full control of them.

The Public Employment Relations Board, a state body that oversees labor relations for government employees, did not issue a decision yesterday in response to a complaint that the union filed on Sunday, asserting that the authority had violated state law by including its pension demands as part of what it said was its final offer. The union has asked the labor board to seek an injunction ordering the authority to drop its pension demand.

At 9:15 p.m. yesterday, the board's executive director, James R. Edgar, said the board had not yet received the authority's legal papers replying to the union.

Many New Yorkers said a strike would disrupt their lives. Doreen Simon, 55, who lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and works as a housekeeper in Riverdale, the Bronx, said, "I'm going to stay home. What can I do? I can't take a cab to the Bronx. It's going to hurt."

The union has repeatedly urged Mr. Pataki to join the talks, trying to put the onus on him if there is a walkout. But the governor, like the mayor, says that the professionals at the authority should handle the talks.

Workers at the Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road are not expected to strike in support of transit workers. Anthony J. Bottalico, the chairman of the union that represents Metro-North engineers, conductors and rail-traffic controllers, said none of his members planned to strike.

However, two other unions, which represent Metro-North ticket collectors and track workers, have vowed to show solidarity with Local 100 by refusing to cross picket lines, and they could conceivably delay, though not disrupt, regular train service.

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