Transit union leader Roger Toussaint took time out from last-minute contract bargaining this evening to fire up his troops for what he suggested was a likely strike.
“As we stand here right now, with six hours to go, things do not look good,” Toussaint told a throng of several thousand members and supporters at a rally outside Governor Pataki’s office on Third Avenue in Midtown. Speaking just before 6 P.M., Toussaint tried to put the blame for faltering talks squarely on Pataki’s transit managers, saying “they wouldn’t bargain in good faith.”
Toussaint said he was headed back to the Grand Hyatt hotel where on-again and off-again contract bargaining sessions with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have been held since last week. “I am going to give it one more shot,” Toussaint said. But he made no effort to sound optimistic, and charged that MTA officials had sabotaged the talks from the start.
“From the time [managers] came to the table, they said they wanted binding arbitration. We said. ‘Go to hell.’ You’ll have binding arbitration over the dead bodies of our leaders.”
According to some union sources, MTA officials were poised to remove one major stumbling block from the table, their demand that the union agree to raise the age at which new members can retire with a full pension to 62 from the current 55. But Transport Workers Union officials suggested that even that move could come too late to avoid a walkout over other vital issues, including what the union has called rampant disciplinary sanctions against members.
A transit strike would be illegal, subjecting members and the union to heavy fines, and could also mean jail for strike leaders. Toussaint, an African-American native of Trinidad, sought to compare this fight with that of late civil rights icon Rosa Parks.
“If Rosa Parks had obeyed the law, many of us who now drive the bus would be standing in the back of the bus,” he said, as transit workers, the majority of whom are black and Hispanic, cheered.
The decision whether or not to strike will be made by the union’s executive board at a meeting at its West Side headquarters tonight between 10 P.M. and midnight, he said.
Toussaint was preceded by more than two dozen labor leaders and elected officials, including teachers’ union presdient Randi Weingarten, building maintenance employees chief Michael Fishman, and police union leader Pat Lynch who said his members “while on the other side of the barriers now are with you in their hearts.”