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NYC Transit Union Calls Selective Strike

Friday, December 16, 2005

The New York City transit union called Friday for a strike against two private bus lines after a night of intense bargaining failed to produce a deal - a development that does not immediately affect the subways that shuttle millions of people each day.

The move escalates pressure on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority by starting with two private bus lines that are in the process of being taken over by the transit agency.

However, it was not immediately clear when - or even if - a bus strike was to begin; the lines continued to run during the Friday morning rush-hour.

"Unless everybody goes on strike, together with the blue buses, the subways, the private lines are not going on strike first," asserted Jamaica Bus Lines supervisor William Barrios, who said his local union representative told bus employees to keep working, at least for now. "I'm scared about my job. I've been here 27 years."

George Jennings, vice chair of the local union shop at Jamaica Bus Depot, said, "We are going out Monday at 12:01 a.m. unless we are directed by our union leaders not to."

The union says the two private bus lines are not under the jurisdiction of the state law which prohibits a walkout. Public bus and subway workers could lose two days' pay for every day of a strike. The city is asking for additional damages against individual workers: $25,000 for the first day of the walkout, doubling each day thereafter.

"We had a completely normal rush hour on both lines," said Jamie Van Bramer, spokesman for the two private bus companies. Van Bramer said he could not comment about if or when the service might be halted.

The private bus lines serve areas mainly in Queens that have limited public transit options. About 50,000 riders are served by the lines, which have about 750 workers.

Jarrod Bernstein, an Office of Emergency Management spokesman, said the city was implementing part of its contingency plan in the areas affected by the strike. That means licensed commuter vans and other vehicles will pick up people who are losing bus service.

Roger Toussaint, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, made the strike comments after union leaders rejected the MTA's latest contract offer.

"The MTA has, through its actions and inaction, provoked our members too many times. We have been left with no choice," Toussaint said. "We tried to bargain with the MTA. We negotiated well past our contract deadline because we wanted to get a deal done and we still do."

After a day marked by heated attacks, the union and the MTA returned to the bargaining table at 11 p.m. for a session that ended at about 4:30 a.m. Toussaint then went to the union's executive board to present the details of the offer.

The MTA offer included an increase in raises - 9 percent over three years. It had been offering 6 percent over 27 months.

Despite the labor strife, commuters expressed relief after fears that a strike threatened to leave millions stranded after the 12:01 a.m. contract deadline.

"I was really hoping that everything was running," said Mary Marino, who arrived at Penn Station on Friday morning to connect with two subway trains for her job at a lower Manhattan nursing home. "I didn't sleep too well last night. I kept turning on the TV to see if they had settled."

"I thought there was a strong chance there would be a strike - which is why I got up at 5 a.m.," said Felix Lao-Batiz, 45, who lives in Upper Manhattan and was heading to Jersey City, where he works at a brokerage firm.

Earlier Thursday, leaders on both sides said that little progress had been made.

"As of this moment we have no progress to report and that's not good because we have precious little time left before the deadline approaches," Toussaint said late Thursday.

A half-hour before the deadline, MTA chief negotiator Gary Dellaverson angrily told reporters that the union was putting forth last-minute "spin and misstatements" that were only delaying a deal.

"To begin to recharacterize these negotiations as some broad-based attack on the labor movement or working people in this city is simply wrong, and it doesn't help us reach an agreement," Dellaverson said.

The millions of New Yorkers who rely on the subway had been urged to make arrangements to car pool, bicycle and walk to work, or change their schedules and work from home in the case of a strike.

"We are hoping for the best and preparing for the worst," Mayor Michael Bloomberg had said.

Main sticking points included wage increases, pension rules and health care benefits. The union balked at the MTA's demand to raise the age of pension eligibility for new employees.

The workers had sought 8 percent annual raises over three years and contend they should get a share of the MTA's $1 billion surplus, as well as more terrorism training.

Train operators, station agents and cleaners earn between $47,000 and $55,000 a year before overtime.

Public bus and subway workers could lose two days' pay for every day of a strike. The city is asking for additional damages against individual workers: $25,000 for the first day of the walkout, doubling each day thereafter.

Estimates are that a strike would cost the city hundreds of millions per day in overtime and lost business and productivity.

At 1:30 a.m. Friday, Bruce Gilmore was getting a cup of coffee at Penn Station, preparing to head to his home in Queens.

"I make 10 bucks an hour," he said, adding the strike would cost him $15 each way to take a cab and the Long Island Rail Road. "It's a fair chunk of change. If I have to do that for a lengthy strike, there goes Christmas."

The last time New York had a transit strike was 1980, when subways and buses sat motionless for 11 days. Tens of thousands of people mounted bicycles, walked and embraced creative modes of transportation like boats, private helicopters and roller skates.

In 2002, the union and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority reached a deal hours after the contract deadline passed.

Associated Press Writers Adam Goldman, Sara Kugler and Pat Milton contributed to this report.

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