NEW YORK – A state judge on Tuesday imposed a $1 million-a-day fine against New York City's transit union, after the Transport Workers Union walked away from their jobs at subway and bus stations in an illegal strike earlier that day.
State Justice Theodore Jones leveled the $1-million-a-day sanction against the TWU for violating a state law that bars its 33,000 public employees from going on strike over wages and pension benefits. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority had asked that the TWU be held accountable and that hefty fines be brought against it and its members.
"This is a very, very sad day in the history of labor relations for New York City," Jones said in imposing the fine. The union vowed to immediately appeal, calling it an excessive fine.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg had some harsh words for the 30,000 members of the TWU. Union President Roger Toussaint, as well as other union leaders and strike participants, "shamefully decided they don't care for the people they work for and that they have no respect for the law," Bloomberg said during an afternoon press conference.
"It is robbing people of their opportunities to earn a living and provide for their families," he said.
He added that the TWU leadership has "thuggishly turned their back on New York City."
More than 7 million people in and around New York City were forced to walk, find a cab, drive into work or work from home Tuesday after the strike began at 3 a.m. EST. The strike affects not only Manhattan but the other city boroughs as well — the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.
"People there are being hurt and inconvenienced. It's not just Manhattan," Bloomberg stressed.
Subways and buses ground to a halt early Tuesday morning following days of acrimonious labor talks about pay raises, pension and health benefits for new hires. Authorities began locking turnstiles and shuttering subway entrances shortly after the illegal strike began.
At the height of the holiday season, the city placed police officers en masse around the city as part of preparations for the morning rush-hour chaos.
Bloomberg, who estimated the strike could cost the city $400 million a day, said not only is the city noticeably less busy than it is on a regular day, but many food delivery services have not been able to make their runs, schools opened two hours late, hotels were experiencing cancellations and airlines are "on edge." He said one police officer on strike duty Tuesday was even hit by a car while on the job.
"All of this because of an illegal strike," the mayor said. "Let me repeat: This selfish strike is illegal. We live in a country of laws where there can be severe consequences for those who break them. Union members are no different … we will use every available tool under the law to get the transit workers back to work."
The striking members of TWU's Local 100 deserve a "very potent fine" for the walkout because of its economic and social cost, James Henly of the state attorney general's office said in court. But TWU attorney Arthur Schwartz accused the MTA of provoking the strike.
Gov. George Pataki publicly attacked the union.
"The TWU has broken the law," Pataki said at a Manhattan news conference. "That is wrong, and they will suffer the consequences."
No talks between the two sides were scheduled by Tuesday afternoon, although a mediator from a state labor board was meeting with both union and MTA officials Tuesday afternoon.
The MTA asked the Public Employment Relations Board to formally declare an impasse, the first step toward forcing binding arbitration of the contract, said James Edgar, the board's executive director.
Commuters: 'Enough is Enough'
Around the city, at one subway booth, a handwritten sign read, "Strike in Effect. Station Closed. Happy Holidays!!!!"
At Penn Station — a major hub for commuter trains coming in and out of New Jersey and for Amtrak — an announcement over the loudspeaker told people to "please exit the subway system."
Bloomberg put into effect a sweeping emergency plan to reduce gridlock and keep certain streets open for emergency vehicles. It included requiring cars coming into Manhattan below 96th Street to have at least four occupants until 11 a.m.
Police officers were checking each car and refusing to let those with fewer than four passengers continue into the heart of the city; some drivers were picking up random people off the street to meet the quota. However, vehicles traveling within Manhattan don't need to have four passengers.
Bloomberg, a subway rider himself who spent the night at the Office of Emergency Management headquarters, walked over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall in the morning in solidarity with the thousands of Brooklyn residents making their way in to work on foot amid below-freezing temperatures.
The temperature at 7:30 a.m. EST in the city was only 22 degrees but felt like 10 degrees with the wind chill. Two-dozen Santas from Brookstone's department store stood on the bridge to greet commuters as they walked or biked across the bridge. Coffee and hot chocolate was also distributed to commuters there.
"I would have expected the TWU to act much more responsibly but they didn't and now the courts will impose very severe penalties," Bloomberg said while crossing the bridge. "It's sad because there are no winners when you have a strike like this."
Commuter frustration was evident both before the strike and after it was called.
"The rest of us are having to pay our health insurance and our pensions are going away, too, so I think we've all got to be in this together. No, I don't have any sympathy," one woman walking over the Brooklyn Bridge told FOX News.
Darryl Padilla, a 20-year-old club promoter, was trying to get on the train at Penn Station when he found out the strike had begun. He didn't have enough cash to take a cab to his home on the northern tip of Manhattan.
"I didn't think they were going to shut down. I can't take a cab," he said.
"I think they all should get fired," said Eddie Goncalves, a doorman trying to get home after his overnight shift. He said he expected to spend an extra $30 per day in cab and train fares.
"Enough is enough," said Craig DeRosa, who relies on the subway to get to work. "Their benefits are as rich as you see anywhere in this country and they are still complaining. I don't get it."
In Queens, Brunilda Ayala said she had no sympathy for the union after the bus strike began in her neighborhood.
"How can you give a raise to a bus driver who would make three old ladies walk home in the cold?" asked Ayala, 57.
Huge lines formed at ticket booths for the commuter railroads that stayed in operation, and Manhattan-bound traffic backed up at many bridges and tunnels as police turned away cars with fewer than four people. Meanwhile, transit workers took to the picket lines with signs that read "We Move NY. Respect Us!"
Commuters, scrounging for ways to get to work, lined up for cabs and gathered in clusters on designated spots throughout the city for company vans and buses to shuttle them to their offices.
"There were hundreds of people waiting for cabs, pulling doors left and right," said taxi driver Angel Aponte, who left his meter off and charged $10 per person.
The union called the strike after a late round of negotiations broke down Monday night. Toussaint said the union board voted overwhelmingly to call the strike, the city's first since an 11-day strike in 1980.
It is illegal for mass transit workers to strike in New York, which means the 33,000 bus and subway employees will incur huge fines — two days' pay for each day on strike.
"This is a fight over dignity and respect on the job, a concept that is very alien to the MTA," Toussaint said in announcing the strike. "Transit workers are tired of being underappreciated and disrespected."
The news drew an angry response from the city and state officials of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow called the strike "a slap in the face" to all New Yorkers and said state lawyers will immediately head to court in seeking to block the walkout.
"This is not only an affront to the concept of public service, 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," Bloomberg said at a news conference.
"They have broken the trust of the people of New York," Pataki said. "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."
MTA spokesman Tom Kelly said the agency "put a fair offer" on the table before talks broke down. "Unfortunately, that offer has been rejected."
The union said the latest MTA offer included annual raises of 3 percent, 4 percent and 3.5 percent; the previous proposal included 3 percent raises each year. MTA workers earn between $47,000 and $55,000 annually. The MTA originally had demanded an 8 percent pay raise per year for their members.
Pension issues have been a major sticking point in the talks. The MTA wants to raise the age at which new employees become eligible for full pensions from 55 to 62, which the union says is unfair.
But Toussaint said the union wanted a better offer from the MTA, especially when the agency has a $1 billion surplus this year.
"With a $1 billion surplus, this contract between the MTA and the Transport Workers Union should have been a no-brainer," Toussaint said. "Sadly, that has not been the case."
The down-to-the-wire negotiations came as workers at two private bus lines in Queens walked off the job, a move meant to step up pressure on the MTA.
The contract expired Friday at midnight, but the two sides agreed to keep talking through the weekend and the union set a new deadline for Tuesday.
According to the MTA, about 4.5 million people ride the subways — which serve all five boroughs — on the average weekday and 1.4 billion each year, ranking New York fifth in the world in annual subway ridership.
City buses serve Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island. About 2.4 million people ride the buses daily, and about 740 million ride them each year. New York ranks first among annual bus ridership in North America.
FOX News' Jamie Colby and The Associated Press contributed to this report.