New York strike misery grows

New York transit worker union leaders could face jail time on Thursday if they don’t call off their strike and a judge makes good his threat, as New Yorkers brave yet a third day of long, cold walks and traffic jams.

Judge Theodore Jones ordered union leaders to appear before him on Thursday and said jail is a serious possibility if they do not order the end of the stoppage, a city official said. A state law bans strikes by public workers.

The Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) is already being fined $1-million for each day of the action, and the city has threatened to deduct three days’ pay for each day a worker is on strike.

City authorities estimate that the strike cost $400-million on the first day, and believe New York could lose $1,6-billion in Christmas business if the strike lasts one week.

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who on two mornings joined the throngs hiking across the Brooklyn Bridge to get to work, said that more people than on the first day walked, rode bikes or crammed into cars to struggle to their Manhattan offices.

“The people of this city are dealing with a situation that is intolerable,” Bloomberg fumed at a press conference, as he blasted the union workers for “shamefully and illegally” ignoring the law.

Negotiations

The city’s nearly 34 000 subway and bus workers started the city’s first mass transport strike in 25 years over demands by city authorities for a higher retirement age and greater contributions toward health costs.

Bloomberg said there can be no negotiations until the strike ends.

In final negotiations late on Monday, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) improved its wage offer and dropped a demand to increase the retirement age from 55, but insisted that workers contribute more toward their pensions.

The proposal would save the MTA less than $20-million over the next three years, according to The New York Times.

In a Tuesday press conference, TWU leader Roger Toussaint said the subway workers will be back on the job “provided the pensions come off the table. That would be a basis for us to go back to work and continue the negotiations.”

Toussaint also lashed out at Bloomberg, describing his criticism as a “lack of respect for the transit workers”.

“We’re not thugs,” he said, reminding him of the key role union members played in rescue operations following the September 11 2001 terror attacks.

MTA president Peter Kalikow issued a statement late on Wednesday branding the TWU demands as “outrageous”.
Contract negotiations between the two sides broke off late on Monday.

Emergency

The strike has forced the New York Blood Centre, the biggest United States blood bank, to declare a “state of emergency” because of shortages of blood and platelets for transfusions.

The city streets choked with cars, despite Bloomberg’s emergency order that any vehicle entering Manhattan must carry at least four people.

In the afternoon commute home, vehicles jammed the bridge exits as a flood of bundled-up pedestrians marched by, shivering in the cold as they made their way home.

“Be patient, OK?,” taxi driver Arif Mahmood told passengers as they got on, several of them sharing the same ride under the emergency rules imposed by city authorities during the strike.

In 16 years working behind the wheel, Mahmood said he never saw worse traffic conditions in the city: “The traffic was good yesterday, but it is very bad today.”

Mark Justh (40), a Wall Street investment banker who ran to his Brooklyn home as he does three times a week, said the traffic across the Brooklyn Bridge had completely stopped.

“There was a sense of hopelessness,” he said. “There’s a noose around the city and it’s slowly being strangled. There’s a sense of desperation. There are people in my office getting up at 2am from Queens to come into work!”

More than 400 subway stations were locked up as the daily commuter army jostled to share cab rides or crowd on to Long Island Rail Road and Metro North trains—railway lines not on strike.

Volunteers stood on street corners handing out cups of hot chocolate to commuters in the freezing temperatures.

“It’s not pleasant, but that’s life in a big city,” said Michael Padden, a federal lawyer who endured a two-hour commute by regional rail and on foot to get to the courthouse in Brooklyn.

“Once in a while, something like that happens. All this luxury mustn’t be taken for granted. You have to adapt. We’ve had 9/11, the blackout—we’ve been through much worse.”

The White House urged the two sides to “resolve their differences so that the people in New York can get to where they need to go”.

While the federal government cannot intervene in transit strikes, spokesperson Scott McClellan acknowledged that it could offer help in mediating talks.

The previous transport strike in 1980 lasted 11 days and cost the city’s public and private sectors about $1,1-billion.—Sapa-AFP

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