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As Negotiations Continue, City Prepares for Transit Strike

Published: December 15, 2005

Publication: The New York Times

By Jim Rutenberg

With a contract deadline just after midnight tonight, representatives of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the transit workers’ union met intermittently yesterday to stave off a strike as the agency’s top negotiator warned that “we are not in a good place.”

Although there was some small movement yesterday on the key issue of wages, the negotiator, Gary J. Dellaverson, said: “We should be closer now. There should be more progress, and I can’t stand here and say that I’m comfortable with the negotiations where they stand at this instant.”

Then he added, “I still remain hopeful.”

He spoke just moments after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced a comprehensive emergency plan to contend with a walkout. The plan would increase ferry service, restrict entry to much of Manhattan to high-occupancy vehicles, clear several major thoroughfares including Fifth Avenue of nearly all traffic but buses and emergency vehicles, and allow groups of riders to haggle with cabbies. [Details, Pages B8-B9.]

The union originally called for 8 percent annual raises, but late in the day it indicated that it would accept smaller increases if the authority agreed to decrease disciplinary actions against employees by 25 percent. The union did not say how much it was willing to trim its demand.

The day of stop-and-start negotiations was punctuated by the union’s sharp criticism of the transportation authority, inconclusive court dealings, and last-minute efforts by suburban railroads to put their own emergency plans in place.

A strike by Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, which represents 33,700 subway and bus workers, would begin at 12:01 a.m. tomorrow. Walkouts by public employees are illegal under state law.

Besides wages, the two sides disagree over pensions, health insurance and safety. Mr. Dellaverson hinted that the authority’s chairman, Peter S. Kalikow, might join the talks today; he did so at the last minute three years ago to reach a settlement.

Roger Toussaint, the president of Local 100, said in an interview last night that the authority was showing little flexibility and was forcing his union’s back to the wall. He also denounced Mr. Bloomberg’s efforts, including a lawsuit seeking huge fines, intended to pressure the union not to strike. He said the mayor had so angered union members that he made a strike more likely.

“He’s gone way beyond the pale,” he said. “It’s Giuliani-like. It has all the earmarks of bullying, something that transit workers do not react well to.” He said the chances of a walkout were 50-50.

“I have said that a settlement won’t come from courts, injunctions or intimidation, ” Mr. Toussaint said. “While we of course are mindful of the legal penalties our members face, we will not buckle in the face of these threats.”

Later, after four and a half hours of off-again, on-again talks, the two sides broke for the night at 11 p.m. The union officials said the tone had improved slightly, because Lawrence G. Reuter, the president of New York City Transit, had joined the talks for the first time. Mr. Reuter pressed the union to set individual deadlines today for settling specific issues.

The city’s emergency plan indicated how seriously the mayor is taking the possibility of a strike and how crippling officials believe a subway and bus stoppage would be for riders and the city’s economy at the height of the holiday shopping season. “A strike would be more than just illegal and inconvenient,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “It will threaten public safety and severely disrupt our city and its economy.”

“There would be no winners in a strike,” the mayor said. “And I speak for every New Yorker when I urge the T.W.U. to resolve the contract at the bargaining table.”

Gov. George E. Pataki, before leaving for New Hampshire, made his most forceful comments yet to discourage a strike, warning of “dire consequences” and telling the union: “Don’t even threaten a strike.”

Arthur Z. Schwartz, a lawyer for the union, said the two sides were supposed to attend a Brooklyn court hearing on the city’s request for fines; the city asked that on the first day, the union be fined $1 million and individual workers $25,000, and that the fines be doubled each successive day.

Mr. Schwartz said he was told that no hearing was warranted because the city corporation counsel’s office, which filed the lawsuit on Tuesday, had not supplied the papers the judge needed to decide the matter.

“What happened yesterday in the filing of that lawsuit is simply an effort by the mayor and an effort by the corporation counsel to interfere with negotiations to try to intimidate the members of Local 100,” Mr. Schwartz said. “It is an utterly baseless lawsuit designed only to gather headlines.”

Michael A. Cardozo, the corporation counsel, said the city intended to go ahead with the suit, but was waiting to see the union’s next moves.

“Our lawsuit is designed to protect the security of the city and to recover damages that the city would suffer in the event there is a strike,” he said.

In a separate lawsuit, the state was granted an injunction on Tuesday barring a transit strike or slowdown.

Top negotiators from the two sides have bargained little in recent days — three hours on Monday and 75 minutes on Tuesday. Mr. Dellaverson said he was sure the pace would pick up.

“Have we been fully engaged? Yes,” Mr. Dellaverson said. “Have there been enough meetings to adequately bridge the gap? No.”

Going into yesterday, the authority had offered two raises of 3 percent in a 27-month contract. On pensions, the authority wants to raise the retirement age for newly hired employees to 62 after 30 years of service, while the union wants to lower it to age 50 after 20 years of service. At present, transit workers can retire at age 55 after 25 years of work, with a pension equal to half their annual pay; the average is $55,000, including overtime.

Many transit workers have said the authority’s offer barely matches inflation in a year that the authority had a $1 billion surplus. The authority counters that it will have a $800 million deficit beginning in 2008. The authority’s board voted yesterday to spend much of that surplus, angering the union because it allocated none of the surplus to wages.

Mr. Dellaverson said that the union’s proposal, with its lower pension age, 8 percent raises, and improved health coverage, would cost the authority $550 million extra a year.

“The M.T.A. proposal is targeted at those long-term challenges that we and other employers are confronting,” Mr. Dellaverson said. “It would be easy but wrong to ignore that.”

Criticizing the authority’s demand for concessions on pensions, Mr. Toussaint said, ” The M.T.A. is misplaced to believe that the T.W.U. will be responsible for a historic decline or reversal for the labor movement with respect to pensions.”

Complicating the talks, the union has threatened to strike unless the authority also reaches a contract for 2,200 workers at five private bus lines that the authority is taking over. Those workers have been without a contract for nearly three years.

With no control over the M.T.A., a state entity, the city can do little more than wait and plan for the worst, Mr. Bloomberg acknowledged. The city’s plan was largely devised to reduce car traffic as much as possible through extensive car pooling, ride sharing, walking or bicycling.

Mr. Bloomberg said the city would close several major Midtown streets to all but emergency vehicles, private buses, commuter vans and motorcycles during workdays and would shut approaches to Manhattan south of 96th Street to all cars carrying fewer than four people during the morning rush. Car-pooling sites would be set up to allow drivers to pick up passengers to meet the limit. Taxicabs will be allowed to carry multiple fares, and will be able to charge based on a zone system. Cabdrivers will be allowed to charge up to $10 to start and up to $5 for each zone covered during the trip.

But the mayor said the best bet was to work from home if possible and, if not, to ride a bike or walk.

“All of us should be prepared to deal with significant crowding and delays, and all of us should do our best to be patient and courteous,” he said. “By working together and looking out for each other we’ll be able to weather the storm.”

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