updated 12/10/2005 10:26:20 PM ET 2005-12-11T03:26:20

New York City transit workers voted Saturday to authorize a strike that could shut down bus and subway service at the height of the holiday shopping season.

Thousands of members of Transport Workers Local 100 voted unanimously to authorize their leaders to call a walkout if the union and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can’t agree on a new contract by midnight Thursday, when the current contract expires.

MTA officials said they were optimistic an agreement would be reached.

State law prohibits strikes by public employees, and union workers would face huge fines if they walked off the job. The last strike by city transit workers was in April 1980, when they halted mass transit for 11 days.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who often rides the subway to City Hall, said Friday that he hopes the strike talk is just a negotiating technique. He said a mass transit shutdown would be devastating to the city’s economy, particularly at this time of year.

The system shuttles more than 7 million riders throughout the city on an average day.

The MTA last week offered a proposal that would give workers a 3 percent raise in the first year and a conditional raise of 2 percent the second year. The union rejected the offer, which also proposed changes to workers’ retirement and health benefits. Union president Roger Toussaint said parts of it were insulting to his 38,000 members.

Wayne Friedman, a train operator who took part in Saturday’s vote, said a strike was a real possibility.

“In my opinion, the union is absolutely serious about striking this time,” he said. “If they negotiate fairly, we won’t have that problem.”

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