- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005

From combined dispatches

NEW YORK — Commuters trudged through the freezing cold, rode bicycles and shared cabs yesterday as New York’s bus and subway workers went on strike and stranded millions of riders. 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 Judge 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 thrown in jail.

The courtroom drama came midway through a day in which the walkout — the first in more than 25 years — 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.

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 carpooled, shared taxis, rode bicycles, roller-skated or walked in the freezing cold. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who said the strike would cost the city as much as $400 million a day, joined the crowds of people crossing the Brooklyn Bridge by foot.

New York Gov. George E. Pataki said the union acted illegally and “will suffer the consequences.”

Just hours after the transit strike shut down the subway system, commuter Maria Aranskaya woke up at 6:15 a.m. and walked more than a mile to the 59th Street Bridge. Once there, she squeezed into the back seat of a stranger’s car to make the mandatory four-person carpool.

She then walked nearly two miles down Madison Avenue to get to her job as an office assistant at a Manhattan insurance firm.

“I didn’t expect it to be this much fun,” she admitted, curled around a cup of coffee for warmth. “If you’re dressed right and you’re moving fast, it’s not so bad.”

At the United Nations, diplomats ate cold salads or served themselves from steam tables when most of the kitchen staff didn’t turn up for work.

While investment bankers from Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs were ferried from Grand Central Terminal to Wall Street in luxury buses, most people simply walked across town.

By the evening rush hour, crowds were thick at both Pennsylvania 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 Pennsylvania Station, carried 50,000 more passengers above its usual 100,000.

No negotiations were scheduled between the TWU and the Metropolitan Transit Authority, although a mediator from a state labor board met with both union and MTA officials yesterday afternoon.

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 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 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.

Staff reporter Betsy Pisik contributed to this report.

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