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Transit Strike Hobbles New York City


Millions of people are struggling to get around New York City today after subway and bus workers walked off the job. The city's Transport Workers Union called the strike early this morning after a late round of negotiations broke down. Union President Roger Toussaint announced the decision.

Mr. ROGER TOUSSAINT (President, Transit Workers Union Local 100): New Yorkers, this is a fight over whether hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement. This is a fight over dignity and respect on the job.

MONTAGNE: Union President Roger Toussaint. City officials have requested an emergency court hearing this morning. They're asking the court to impose severe fines on the union and its members. It is illegal for mass transit workers to strike in New York. Mayor Michael Bloomberg criticized the union's decision.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (New York City): It is a cowardly attempt by Roger Toussaint and the TWU to bring the city to its knees to create leverage for their own bargaining position. We cannot give the TWU the satisfaction of causing the havoc they desperately seek to create.

MONTAGNE: Joining me now is reporter Beth Fertig from member station WNYC.

Good morning.

BETH FERTIG reporting:

Good morning.

MONTAGNE: And you've been following the negotiations for the last few days. Why did they collapse?

FERTIG: Well, contract talks are always about two things: wages and benefits. And in this case, the two sides were far apart, but we always presume that they will get closer together. But what seemed to compound the problem this time was that the MTA, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, was ending the year with a billion-dollar surplus. And the Transport Workers Union felt that they were entitled to a big chunk of that in the form of raises and benefits because they did not get such a big package three years ago. And so they were adamant that their workers deserved part of that surplus, while the MTA was insisting that they're going to have future deficits and they needed to save that money and pay down the deficits later.

MONTAGNE: And this dispute is largely about future workers and their pensions. What's at issue there?

FERTIG: Well, as we heard Roger Toussaint say, this is a fight for decent retirement. The union was totally adamant in its position that new employees should not get anything less than current employees. And what the MTA was offering was wage increases of ultimately 3 percent, 4 percent and 3 1/2 percent over a three-year contract. That's how things ended this morning, but they didn't back off on two key things which was requiring new employees to pay more for health care and to also pay more for their pension. And the union president was saying that he refused to let the new employees, which he called the unborn, be sacrificed. He wanted all employees to get the same benefits. So that's how the two sides really dug their feet in, the MTA insisting that it wanted new employees to pay more in order to pay down the deficit and to keep costs from spiraling out of control because pension and health care are very expensive.

MONTAGNE: And from the city's perspective, the timing of this strike really couldn't be worse.

FERTIG: Of course. This is the Christmas season. The city is claiming that it's going to lose $400 million a day, 10 million of which is going to be spent on police, keeping the transit system from being vandalized and watching over things. And on top of that, the city's got contingency plans now where people will have to car pool and schools are going to be delayed from opening for two hours. And so there's going to be a lot of things for New York City to absorb, including lawsuits where they're going to try to force the union to pay extra in addition to the fines they're going to face under the state law that prevents public employees from striking.

MONTAGNE: Reporter Beth Fertig of member station WNYC speaking to us from New York.

Thanks very much.

FERTIG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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