December 17, 2005

NY transit and union back at negotiating table

By Joan Gralla and Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York transit officials and union
leaders resumed talks on Saturday in hopes of reaching a
contract deal and averting a potentially crippling strike of
the city's subway and bus system.

The 34,000-member Transport Workers Union is threatening to
walk off the job at 12:01 a.m. (0501 GMT) on Tuesday if a new
deal is not struck. It would be the city's first subway and bus
strike in 25 years and leave some 7 million passengers
scrambling to find ways to get to school and work.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has warned a full-blown strike of
the largest U.S. public transit system would be a huge blow to
the city's economy during the height of the holiday shopping

The first strike deadline passed when the union's
three-year contract with the state-run Metropolitan
Transportation Authority expired early on Friday.

Talks broke off a few hours later but late on Friday, an
MTA representative said the two sides would reconvene on
Saturday morning.

Asked on Saturday if talks had resumed, union spokesman
Jesse Derris said, "They have this morning."

A union walkout would violate a state law prohibiting
strikes by municipal employees, and union members could be
heavily fined.

At issue in the contract dispute are pay raises,
health-care costs and the employee retirement age. The union
has rejected an MTA offer that included a 9 percent wage hike
over three years, required new hires to pay part of their
pension and health-care costs and would raise the retirement
age for new hires to 62 from 55.

The MTA said on Friday the offer was final.

The union has long had tense relations with MTA management,
complaining about such issues as disciplinary procedures toward
workers. Union workers are also angry the MTA is citing
financial hardship at a time when it has reported a $1 billion
surplus and offered half-price fares to holiday shoppers.

MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow has suggested the two sides
submit the dispute to arbitration, but TWU chief Roger
Toussaint has refused.

The TWU already announced plans for a partial strike,
expected to begin on Monday, against two private bus lines in
the borough of Queens.

Bloomberg has said a system-wide strike would cost New York
as much as $400 million a day. An 11-day bus and subway strike
in 1980 cost New York more than $1 billion.

"The last shopping week before Christmas is very big,
particularly for store sales, for restaurants, theaters, the
tourists," the Republican mayor said on Friday. "I hope that
the intention (of the union) is to bargain in good faith and
not just to stall and try to get more leverage because somebody
might say, 'We might be able to inflict more pain during the

Also issuing words of warning was Republican Gov. George
Pataki, who cautioned union workers on Friday they would face
heavy penalties if they joined an illegal strike.

"I have three words for the TWU: Don't do it," he said.
"There will be very real consequences."

The private bus lines initially affected are in the process
of being taken over by the MTA, and a walkout against them
would not constitute an illegal strike.

(Additional reporting by Christine Kearney)