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The Transit Showdown: The Courts; Judge Orders Transit Workers Not to Strike

Published: December 14, 2002

Publication: The New York Times

By Steven Greenhouse

A State Supreme Court justice in Brooklyn issued an injunction last night that bars the city’s transit workers from striking, while union leaders, the mayor and the governor worked to ease the sharp tensions surrounding the contract talks.

The justice, Jules L. Spodek, issued the injunction as the union representing the city’s 34,000 subway and bus workers was threatening to shut down the transit system at 12:01 a.m. Monday if no contract was reached with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

”Given the enormous, debilitating and destructive influence a strike would have, such action would wreak havoc upon this city,” the judge wrote. ”The recent vote by local union membership to give union leadership the power to call a strike leaves this court no choice but to grant” the M.T.A.’s request.

Invoking the state’s Taylor Law, which prohibits strikes by public employees, Justice Spodek barred transit workers from striking and ordered union leaders not to incite their members to strike. But he denied the authority’s motion to prohibit union leaders from even discussing a strike. The injunction opens the way to penalties for contempt as well as the fines for individual workers set by the Taylor Law: two days’ pay for each day on strike.

It was unclear what effect the injunction would have on the talks. Union leaders said a strike remained very possible, with one adviser even suggesting that it could be postponed until later in the week. In interviews, many rank-and-file union members expressed support for a walkout, but only as a last resort. [Page B8.]

The chief management negotiator, Gary Dellaverson, said during a break last night that the injunction was a turning point. ”My expectation is we will reach a settlement right at the table,” he said. ”I have no expectation of a strike. I truly believe that now that the judge has issued his order, he’s taken that issue off the table.”

Later in the evening, Roger Toussaint, the president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, said that the ruling simply restated the existing law and would not change the union’s negotiating strategy. ”All our energies will be focused on the bargaining table, and a settlement reached by negotiations not injunctions,” he said.

Arthur Z. Schwartz, a lawyer for the union, voiced disappointment, saying, ”If somehow this injunction encourages the M.T.A. and the transit authority to be more recalcitrant than they’ve already been at the table, then that’s unfortunate.”

During two hours of arguments yesterday in Justice Spodek’s courtroom, a lawyer for the authority, Neil Abramson, said, ”This is the last best chance that the parties have to stop this disaster.”

But Mr. Schwartz argued that there was no need for an injunction because the workers had not yet decided to go on strike. He asserted that the judge should wait until a strike began before signing an injunction. Justice Spodek dismissed that idea, saying, ”I don’t feel like being awakened at 12:03 and asked to sign an order.”

The city has filed a separate lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Brooklyn seeking larger penalties, including a $1 million-per-day fine for the union, doubling every day thereafter, and a $25,000 fine for each worker, doubling each day. It is also seeking $5 million in damages to compensate the city for the money it has already spent preparing for the strike.

Michael A. Cardozo, the city’s corporation counsel, said the city was not seeking an injunction of its own, which could bring the threat of additional contempt citations, but was instead satisfied to bring a regular lawsuit threatening huge penalities.

The union and the transportation authority held talks yesterday in the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, and everyone seemed to be trying to reduce tensions, which mushroomed on Thursday when Mr. Toussaint said the mayor should ”shut up.” The union leader, who was frustrated with the mayor’s siding strongly with the M.T.A., made the remarks when asked about Mr. Bloomberg’s announcement of the city’s lawsuit.

Gov. George E. Pataki, who controls the authority, in his most extensive comments about the talks, said, ”The important thing now is for everyone not to engage in inflammatory rhetoric.” He said both sides should ”work as hard as they can, talk as much as they can, and do everything in their power to reach an agreement.”

Mr. Pataki rejected the union’s request that he come to the negotiating table with millions of dollars to help seal a deal. ”There is not going to be any federal, state, local official riding in at the last minute on a white horse with a billion dollars to solve the contract,” he said.

Echoing Mr. Bloomberg, Mr. Pataki warned the union not to strike, saying it would have dire consequences and would betray New York’s post-Sept. 11 spirit.

”It would also be a horrendous act of disloyalty to the people of New York at a critical time,” he said. ”We’ve seen New Yorkers pull together in the last year and a half in a way that is extraordinary. And to do this, to threaten to hold the people of New York City hostage, is simply wrong as well as illegal.”

Mayor Bloomberg sought to play down Mr. Toussaint’s attack. On his weekly radio program, he noted that New Yorkers often spoke bluntly, and ended by saying, ”The governor, the M.T.A., Roger Toussaint and the mayor are all doing their best.”

Trying to win more public support, the union began broadcasting a 30-second advertisement yesterday, saying transit workers were paid less than Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road workers, had unsafe jobs and deserved a fair contract.

In the ads, Mr. Toussaint says: ”We don’t want to strike. All we want is to work hard and to support our families.”

One adviser to the union said that Local 100 was considering beginning the strike later than Monday, even if no contract was reached on Sunday. The thinking is that Monday could be used to keep the city off balance and to rally public support from other unions and the public. The transit workers and other unions have scheduled a rally at City Hall Park and a march across Brooklyn Bridge on Monday afternoon.

In contrast to previous rounds of negotiations, the union has dropped the slogan ”No contract, no work.”

With the union and M.T.A. saying little, it was hard to assess how bargaining was going. Earlier in the day, at a news conference at the Grand Hyatt, Mr. Dellaverson, the authority’s negotiator, said, ”We are making progress in important areas.” At a separate news conference, Ed Watt, Local 100’s secretary-treasurer, said, ”We are disappointed in reporting there has been no progress.”

Mr. Watt said the union was frustrated that 54 hours before the contract deadline, management was sticking to its original economic proposal, which called for a wage freeze in the first year and no definite raises in the second and third years. Any raises would be contingent on the union’s agreeing to productivity increases. Management also wants the workers, whose salaries average $44,000 a year, to increase their pension payments by $1,000 a year and their out-of-pocket health payments by $500 a year.

The union, which originally demanded an 8 percent raise three years in a row, is now asking for raises of 6 percent each year.

To set an example on how to weather a transit shutdown, Mr. Bloomberg went to Gotham Bikes in Lower Manhattan and spent $663 to buy a Cannondale F-300 mountain bike equipped with 24 speeds, a bell, lights, a helmet and a lock.

On Thursday, Mr. Toussaint mocked all the mayor’s bike talk as a ”sideshow,” and said the mayor should instead focus his energies on pressuring the authority to show more flexibility in bargaining.

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