For the first time in a quarter century, New York City transit workers walked off the job early this morning after their union rejected a final contract proposal from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
"Transit workers are tired of being underappreciated and disrespected," said a grim Roger Toussaint, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 at a 3 A.M. announcement at the union's West End Avenue headquarters. "From the beginning, the MTA approached these negotiations in bad faith, demanding arbitration even before trying to resolve the contract," he said.
Toussaint sought to address some of his remarks to transit riders many of whom are likely to be either stranded or fighting a holiday traffic gridlock later today, to explain the drastic action by his union.
"New Yorkers, this is a fight over whether hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement," he said. "This is a fight over the erosion, or the eventual elimination, of health-benefits coverage for working people in New York. This is a fight over dignity and respect on the job, a concept that is very alien to the M.T.A."
The union's announcement of a strike came four hours after MTA spokesman Tom Kelly told reporters at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Midtown where the talks were held that the union had rejected the agency's last offer. "They left," said Kelly. "We put the offer on the table, the union rejected it and told us they were going to their union hall."
Within minutes after Toussaint's announcement, police barred subway entrances throughout the city, waving away the handful of late night riders. At the Columbus Circle station, police chained metal fences to the subway entryway. "I guess I'll walk to the Long Island Railroad, that will at least take me into Queens," said one late night commuter after being told the trains weren't running.
The strike, which is illegal under the state's Taylor Law, prompted an immediate denunciation by Mayor Bloomberg who said he had told City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo to seek an injunction against the walkout in Brooklyn Supreme Court later this morning.
The TWU's announcement of its action was delayed for nearly three hours as officials of the local union, which represents nearly 34,000 members, argued with representatives of the union's parent body who said they wouldn't support the strike.
At one point during the discussions, Toussaint and his allies on the local's executive board feared the international union would order them not to strike at all, or perhaps seek to place the local under receivership if it did so. But union sources said an agreement was reached in which the international agreed to state its disagreement - a move aimed at insulating it from heavy fines - while allowing the local to pursue the job action. Toussaint declined to answer questions about the dispute after his announcement.
Neither side in the now abandoned contract talks detailed the final hours of negotiations, but rumors that the MTA had decided to up its wage offer, and to take its demand to increase pension retirement ages off the table, never materialized, according to several union sources. The last offer from the MTA was the same that has been on the table since Friday morning - 9 percent over three years. Union officials said earlier in the day that they had dropped their own wage demands from 8 percent per year over three years to "less than six percent."
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