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Judge fines NYC transit union $1 million a day

A New York state judge on Tuesday slapped a $1 million-a-day fine on a New York City transit union for violating a state law barring public employees from going on strike.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Commuters trudged through the freezing cold, rode bicycles and shared cabs Tuesday as New York’s bus and subway workers went on strike for the first time in more than 25 years and stranded millions of riders at the height of the Christmas rush. A judge slapped the union with a $1 million-a-day fine.

State Justice Theodore Jones leveled the sanction against the Transport Workers Union for violating a state law that bars public employees from going on strike. The city and state had asked Jones to hit the union with a “very potent fine.”

“This is a very, very sad day in the history of labor relations for New York City,” the judge said in imposing the fine.

The union said it would immediately appeal, calling the penalty excessive.

The strike over wages and pensions came just five days before Christmas, at a time when the city is especially busy with shoppers and tourists.

The heavy penalty could force the union off the picket lines and back on the job. Under the law, the union’s 33,000 members will also lose two days’ pay for every day they are on strike, and they could also be jailed.

No major gridlock
The courtroom drama came midway through a day in which the walkout fell far short of the all-out chaos that many had feared. With special traffic rules in place, the morning rush came and went without monumental gridlock. Manhattan streets were unusually quiet; some commuters just stayed home.

The nation’s biggest mass-transit system ground to a halt after 3 a.m., when the TWU called the strike after a late round of negotiations with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority broke down. The subways and buses provide more than 7 million rides per day.

New Yorkers car-pooled, shared taxis, rode bicycles, roller-skated or walked in the freezing cold. Early morning temperatures were in the 20s. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who said the strike would cost the city as much as $400 million a day, joined the throngs of people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge by foot.

“Hey, can I get a ride?” Jay Plastino asked a neighbor near his home in the northern tip of Manhattan. Plastino, who was headed to his midtown job, was angry at the union. “This is a big city. Don’t they realize that?”

By Tuesday’s evening rush hour, crowds were thick at both Penn Station and Grand Central Terminal as commuters waited for trains on the two suburban rail lines, where ridership had soared earlier in the day. The Long Island Rail Road, operating out of Penn Station, carried 50,000 more passengers above its usual 100,000.

Gov. George Pataki said the union acted illegally and “will suffer the consequences.” But union attorney Arthur Schwartz accused the MTA of provoking the strike.

No negotiations were scheduled between the two sides, although a mediator from a state labor board was meeting with both union and MTA officials Tuesday afternoon.

The MTA asked the Public Employment Relations Board to formally declare an impasse, the first step toward forcing binding arbitration of the contract, said James Edgar, the board’s executive director.

First strike since 1980
It was the city’s first transit strike since an 11-day walkout in 1980. The effect this time, however, was tempered by the advent of personal computers, which enabled many commuters to stay home and work via the Internet.

Others boarded water taxis along the Hudson River, or jumped into carpools. Many lined up in the cold to await private buses arranged by their employers, or shared yellow cabs with perfect strangers. There was a flat $10 fee for cab riders.

“The city is functioning, and functioning well considering the severe circumstances,” the mayor said. The TWU “shamefully decided they don’t care about the people they work for, and they have no respect for the law. Their leadership thuggishly turned its back on New York City. This strike is costing us.”

Jack Akameiza, 66, was trying to figure out a way to get from Manhattan to Coney Island. “I cannot go to work,” he said. “I cannot take care of my family.”

Some commuters were upset at the union, others with management. Some, as they made their way to work, blamed both sides.

“It’s two arrogant groups not caring that 7 million people are inconvenienced,” said Kenny Herbert, 45, of Brooklyn, who took the train to work Monday night but needed a water taxi across the East River to get home.

Union parent urges negotiation
The International TWU, the union’s parent, had urged them not to go on strike. Its president, Michael O’Brien, reiterated Tuesday that the striking workers were legally obligated to resume working. The only way to a contract, he said, is “not by strike but continued negotiation.”

The first day of the strike was expected to cost the city $400 million in revenue, with an additional loss of $300 million per day afterward, according to the city comptroller’s office. Countless stores and restaurants were affected.

The mayor put into effect a sweeping emergency plan, including a requirement that cars entering Manhattan below 96th Street have at least four occupants.

Lorraine Hall came to New York expecting a lighthearted celebration of her 65th birthday, but the lack of mass transit put a damper on the occasion. She was determined to make the best of it until her departure on Friday.

“I didn’t come up here to sit in a hotel room, and as long as my two feet are letting me push it, I’m going to push it,” said Hall, who lives in Lancaster, S.C.

The union said the latest MTA offer included annual raises of 3 percent, 4 percent and 3.5 percent. Pensions were another major sticking point in the talks, particularly involving new employees.

Union local president Roger Toussaint said the union wanted a better offer from the MTA, especially when the agency has a $1 billion surplus this year.

The contract expired Friday at midnight, but the two sides had continued talking through the weekend.