December 19, 2005

Talks break off as NY transit strike looms

By Christine Kearney and Ellen Wulfhorst

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Last-ditch contract talks broke off
between New York transit and union negotiators on Monday
without an agreement just ahead of a midnight deadline for a
strike that could leave millions of people scrambling to get to
work and school.

The Transport Workers Union, representing 34,000 subway and
bus workers, rejected the latest offer by the state-run
Metropolitan Transportation Authority and left the negotiating
table, an MTA spokesman said.

The break came about an hour before the deadline of 12:01
a.m. on Tuesday, when the union has said it will walk off the
job if no deal was reached.

"The MTA has put a fair offer on the negotiating table,"
said MTA spokesman Tom Kelly. "Unfortunately that offer has
been rejected by the Transport Workers Union.

"The MTA remains ready to continue negotiations," he added.

Union spokesman Ken Sunshine issued a brief statement,
saying only that TWU chief Roger Toussaint had left the talks
and returned to union headquarters to meet with the union's
executive board.

Toussaint has repeatedly said the midnight deadline was

A walkout would be the city's first subway and bus strike
in 25 years. The system carries 7 million passengers a day.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned that even with city-imposed
contingency measures such as strict car pool rules, the strike
would cause gridlock and hit retail sales and tourism. He said
the strike's economic impact on the city could be as much as
$400 million a day.

The transit system carries 7 million people a day.

Issues under negotiation include wage hikes, health-care
and pension costs and employees' retirement age.

The MTA wants 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.

Art Wilcox, director of state employees for New York's
AFL-CIO, which represents nearly 2 million state workers, said
earlier that other unions were watching closely and faced the
same issues.

"They've woken up a real sleeping tiger," Wilcox said.


Bloomberg called on the union to reach a deal, saying
workers had to face a "new world" where pension and health-care
costs were rising.

The union disputes the MTA's contention that cuts are
necessary, noting that the agency has a $1 billion surplus.

Toussaint has said the union was willing to lower its wage
demands if the MTA agreed to reduce the number of disciplinary
actions against union members.

The union said more than 15,000 such actions were taken
last year for such infractions as reading a newspaper in a
token booth.

A walkout would violate a state law prohibiting strikes by
public employees, and union members could face heavy fines.

A partial strike halted two private bus lines earlier on
Monday, affecting some 50,000 riders. Because those two lines
are only in the process of being acquired by the MTA, the job
action did not constitute an illegal labor action.

New Yorkers braced for the possibility of an arduous
morning rush hour on Tuesday.

"It's very hard waking up in the morning not knowing if you
can take the train to work. I wish they would get this over
with," said Dalia Spektor, 29, a psychologist, who made car
pool arrangements.

(Additional reporting by Larry Fine, Claudia Parsons and
Amanda Cooper)