NEW YORK – The city's crippling three-day mass transit strike ended Thursday after union leaders — facing mounting fines, possible jail terms and the wrath of millions of commuters — voted to return their 33,000 members to work without a new contract.
Union board members who emerged from the organization's headquarters said workers will return to their job sites starting with the next shifts. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of returning to work, and resuming negotiations with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
It was unclear when the city's buses and subways would again start running, although transit officials said it would take a minimum of 12 hours to get everything restarted.
"I'm ready to work the rush hour this afternoon if they let me," bus driver Ralph Torres said from the picket line as word of the possible deal spread.
The announcement of the approval came outside union headquarters about 3 1/2 hours after state mediators said a possible deal was worked out. It puts the nation's largest mass transit system back in operation while negotiations resume on a new three-year contract.
Roger Toussaint, the combative president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, had recommended that his union's executive board accept the deal.
The agreement was worked out over the last two days in separate but fruitful meetings between the two sides. "This was a positive day," said mediator Martin Scheinman. "It was a very positive night. We wouldn't be here otherwise."
Both sides returned to a midtown Manhattan hotel for serious discussions at about 1 a.m. Thursday and met through the night.
The walkout, which began early Tuesday, was the first citywide transit strike in 25 years; the workers left their jobs in violation of a state law prohibiting them from striking.
The walkout sent millions of commuters from the city and its suburbs scrambling to find alternate ways of getting to work, and inflicted a heavy toll on the city's economy in the week before Christmas.
The upbeat mood at the announcement of the tentative deal was in stark contrast with the bitter rhetoric of the last two days, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg traded barbs with Toussaint.
The bitterness was captured in tabloid headlines. The Daily News declared a "War of the Words," and the New York Post screamed: "Jail 'em!" in front of a composite image of Toussaint behind bars.
Gov. George Pataki, a strident critic of the union, hailed the possible deal as "very positive for all New Yorkers."
A chief sticking point in the talks has been the pension proposal to raise contributions to the pension plan for new workers from 2 percent to 6 percent. The union contends it would be impossible to accept.
Both Pataki and Bloomberg had urged the MTA to avoid further negotiations until the union was back on the job.
The breakthrough was announced just minutes before Toussaint and two of his top deputies were due in a Brooklyn courtroom to answer a criminal contempt charge for continuing the strike in defiance of a court order.
State Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones postponed the hearing until 4 p.m. A day earlier, Jones said he would consider fining or potentially jailing union leaders if the strike continued.
He has already fined the union $1 million per day while the strike lasts, although that penalty has been frozen while the TWU appeals.