The seven million passengers who rely on New York's bus and underground network were stranded in sub-zero winter temperatures yesterday morning as the city suffered its first mass-transit strike in a quarter of a century.
Workers were ordered off the job at 3am by union leaders after they rejected a final pay offer from management at the Mass Transit Authority (MTA), guaranteeing chaos and frustration for commuters, tourists and shoppers five days before Christmas.
The New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who joined thousands walking across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan at sun-up, executed an emergency plan, closing several avenues to all but emergency traffic and requiring cars entering Manhattan to carry four passengers or more.
The restrictions on private cars were rigorously enforced by police, triggering huge traffic jams at entry points into Manhattan. Drivers with empty seats were forced either to turn back home or scout for strangers looking for rides to work. Within Manhattan itself, traffic was eerily light.
The showdown over pay and benefits for the 30,000 employees of the MTA has turned deeply political and bitter, dividing the sympathies of New Yorkers. The longer it lasts, the faster patience will dissipate. The last mass transit strike, in April 1980, lasted 11 days.
"They should all go to jail," said Jim Giannella, 53, at a Times Square station closed off with tape. "They should have sat there and stayed on the job. It's just going to make everyone miserable." At another underground station, a sign read: "Strike in Effect. Station Closed. Happy Holidays!"
The strike closed all underground and bus lines, though mainline trains into Manhattan were mostly running. Many New Yorkers chose to stay at home, while others tried a variety of commuting options, from car-pooling to walking and cycling. Many large employers in the city, meanwhile, laid on private shuttle buses to ensure proper staffing of their offices.
Rudy Ramos, 28, travelled from the outer edges of Queens to his administration job at New York University in downtown Manhattan on a skateboard, a two-hour trip.
Although the temperature was below freezing, there was at least bright sunshine and the novelty of his unorthodox journey was enough to get him through. "Actually, it's been quite refreshing," he said, as he navigated a final stretch down Third Avenue. "It's kind of cool to see everyone outside and everyone has been very courteous." The trickiest part was crossing the 59th Street Bridge, which was "knee deep" in pedestrians and cyclists, he said.
Under state law, the action ordered by the Transit Workers Union is illegal. Lawyers for the MTA were in court seeking a contempt order and heavy fines not just against the union but all its employees, which could be as much as two days of pay for each day they do not work. The strike had been called for last Friday, but the union deadline was extended to yesterday to allow further negotiations.
The MTA says it offered pay rises of between 3 per cent and 4 per cent over three years. But it wants to raise the pension entitlement age for new workers from 55 to 62 years old.
In rejecting the package, the union president, Roger Toussaint, noted that the MTA was looking at a $1m (£570,000) surplus this year, saying that with that kind of surplus, "this contract between the MTA and the Transport Workers Union should have been a no-brainer".
The cost to the city in lost revenues, especially in the last shopping days before Christmas, could reach $400m a day, according to Mr Bloomberg, who denounced the union action as a "cowardly attempt" to gain leverage at the bargaining table. "We cannot give the TWU the satisfaction of causing the havoc they desperately seek to create," the Mayor added, urging New Yorkers to find ways of getting to work.
The New York Governor, George Pataki, said the union had "broken the trust" of the people of New York. "They have not only endangered our city and state's economy, but they are also recklessly endangering the health and safety of each and every New Yorker."Reuse content