Published December 21, 2005
NEW YORK – A judge Wednesday ordered leaders of New York's striking transit union brought before him and threatened to jail them for criminal contempt as millions of commuters trudged through Day 2 of the bus and subway walkout.
The strike by the 33,000-member Transport Workers Union is illegal under a New York state law that bars public employees from walking out.
State Justice Theodore Jones directed attorneys from the TWU to bring union local president Roger Toussaint and other top officials before the court on Thursday. He said there was a "distinct possibility" he would send them to jail for refusing to end the strike against the nation's largest transit system.
Turning up the pressure even further on the union, the city asked the judge to issue a back-to-work order. If the judge issues the order and the workers ignore it, the city could ask for fines against rank-and-file members — a punishment that goes beyond the two days' pay they are losing for every day on strike under the no-walkout law.
The fines would be at the discretion of the judge, and most likely would range from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars.
"It needs to end, and it needs to end right now," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in an afternoon news conference, lashing out at what he called an "illegal, selfish strike" and questioning how union leaders could claim their walkout was done to benefit the working class.
"Working people are the ones who are being hurt," Bloomberg said. "The busboy is getting hurt, the garment industry worker is getting hurt, the owners of mom and pop businesses ... The ones getting hurt the most are the ones who can least afford it. If they don't get paid, they don't eat."
Union lawyer Arthur Schwartz said the union leaders were in negotiations with mediators and hauling them into court could halt the talks.
The union walked out over wages and pension contributions Monday in the city's first transit strike in more than 25 years.
The strike was responsible for a 40 percent decline in business at restaurants, an 80 percent decline in visitors at museums, and a 90 percent decline in customers at the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn, the mayor said. He has estimated a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars a day for the city.
Toussaint accused the mayor of using offensive language about transit workers by saying the union "thuggishly" turned its back on New York.
"We are not thugs," Toussaint said. "It points to the problem at the MTA that is shared by the city fathers and the state fathers. ... We find it extremely regrettable."
Meanwhile, millions of New Yorkers trudged to and from work, some walking miles, others riding bicycles and in-line skates in the cold.
"A nightmare, disorganized, especially going home," Aleksandra Radakovic said in describing her commute.
The White House also spoke out Wednesday, saying federal mediators have offered to help end the dispute. "It is unfortunate. We hope that the two sides can resolve their differences so that the people in New York can get to where they need to go," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
On Tuesday, the judge imposed a huge fine against the TWU — $1 million for each day of the strike. The union's lawyer said the fine could deplete the union's treasury in the matter of days, and the union vowed to appeal.
In its last offer before negotiations broke down, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had proposed maintaining a retirement age of 55 but increasing what new hires contribute to the pension plan. It would require new employees to pay 6 percent of their wages for their first 10 years, rather than the current 2 percent. Union officials said that such a change was unacceptable.
The union said the latest MTA offer included annual raises of 3 percent, 4 percent and 3.5 percent; the union is seeking more.