The metal gates at the entrance to the normally bustling N/R/D lines at 36th Street subway station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, slammed down as early as 3 a.m. today, the first day of the transit strike in New York City. During the morning rush hour, the entrance stood empty, void of the steady stream of commuters who would usually have been hustling to and from Manhattan. (Click here for a slideshow of the scene.)
Around 9 a.m., a manager for the Metropolitan Transportation Agency, who declined to be identified, sat on the steps descending into the station, ready for city police to inspect the facilities. He told the Voice that the MTA has locked every subway station that has gates, and cordoned off the rest. He was asked to tour the N/R line, along with two police officers, to scout out any “mischief.”
But if the gates were closed since the early morning, who would be causing mischief?
“Transit workers have a variety of keys to these stations,” he said, implying it wouldn’t be surprising if something happened.
Out on the street, a handful of commuters huddled in the 20-degree chill. One Latina woman, who declined to give her name, was swaddled in a black parka and black scarf, and rocked back and forth to ward off the blistering cold. A regular R-line rider, she was now waiting for a bus, chartered by her boss, to come pick her up. But she’d been waiting for 45 minutes.
“It’s very difficult to travel,” she said, explaining that she relies on public transportation to get around. She wouldn’t say which side she favored—the union workers or the MTA. But she did conclude that a strike “shouldn’t happen, and I hope it doesn’t last.”
A block away, at the corner of 36th Street and 5th Avenue, a 100-plus picket line was forming in front of a city transit station. Union workers chanted into megaphones, screaming, “34,000 cannot be wrong!” and “Beat Pataki and his lackey!” They carried green and white signs that read TWU ON STRIKE AGAINST THE MTA, and waved to the many drivers who honked car horns as they passed by.
Bradley Schiff, an electronics equipment maintainer who started at the MTA in July, said he was plenty cold, too. A Bay Ridge resident, he had to walk from 90th Street, almost 60 blocks, to get to the nearest union picket line.
“I know it’s hard,” he said, commiserating with commuters. Schiff said he’s pinning his hopes on an early resolution, so that he can get back to work. After all, he went from the private sector—a job at Federal Express—to the public sector in search of “better job security.” And now this. “It hasn’t been my year,” he says.
Angel Erazo, a bus driver, stood nearby, his teeth chattering, his body shivering. He’d been outside the transit hub for nearly four hours. He wasn’t happy about the strike, but saw it as necessary. “We’ve got to get some respect from the MTA,” he said, ticking off all the hardships that he and his colleagues face on a regular basis. The long hours. The holidays on the job. And, worse yet, the abuse from passengers.
“You get cursed at and complained at and sometimes people take a swipe at you,” he said. Once, a feisty woman punched him for refusing to give her a transfer. “This is a tough job.”
A fellow bus driver named Roy Cardwood leaned toward Erazo and said, “We can’t all be lying. Somebody has to be telling the truth.”
Cardwood had just been huddled with about a half dozen transit workers, all speculating about what kind of penalties they were going to face from the MTA. Would the agency wipe away vacation time next week? Would they slap fines on workers? Would they fire those workers who also took to the picket lines in 1980 strike?
“People are worried,” Cardwood said. He suspects the current strike will match the 11-day affair of 25 years ago. “I just have that feeling.” His prediction? Three more days before an agreement is reached.
One block away, commuters were still figuring out how to make it to work. But Mike Tenerowicz was wearing a wide smile on his face. The Sunset Park resident normally takes the N line to Lower Manhattan. Today, he was walking two miles to Park Slope, where he’d try doing the telecommute thing in an Internet café. He’s getting Internet at home tomorrow. Despite the inconviences, Tenerowicz sympathizes with the union.
“I feel in general our generation is getting screwed,” the 32-year-old said. “People my age are going to have a harder time when they get older. So I hope the workers gets their demands. It’s an important thing.”
Not everyone agrees. Beni Ashurov, who manages Mandler’s Original Sausage, in Midtown Manhattan, had been trying to get to his restaurant for two hours. He was sitting in a black SUV, with a makeshift sign that read “I need two people to get to the city” taped to a side window. He had come to Sunset Park to pick up one of his workers, and had tried to get on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, but was forced away. Cars entering the city had to have at least four passengers.
“This is ridiculous,” Ashurov told the Voice. His restaurant has gotten hit hard by the strike, with workers having a tough time making it to their shifts. The restaurant is now being staffed by two people, one of whom had to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge to get there. “I’ve been up since six this morning trying to make arrangements,” he said, adding, “I’m still not getting anywhere.”