New York City Transit Strike Talks Down to Wire

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Here's what it could look like: Bicyclists darting through never-ending traffic jams. Swarms of commuters trudging over the Brooklyn Bridge in their sneakers in the freezing cold. Tourists stranded during the height of the Christmas season. Broadway shows with half-empty theaters.

New York could be hit on Friday with its first subway and bus strike in more than 25 years, a walkout that could shut down a system used by an estimated 7 million riders a day.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is locked in round-the-clock negotiations with the Transport Workers Union on a new contract for more than 33,000 members. The old contract expires Friday at 12:01 a.m.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said a strike would be devastating. Estimates are that it would cost the city hundreds of millions per day in overtime and lost business and productivity — a particular blow in the middle of the holiday season.

Fifth Avenue shops and department stores like Macy's and Bloomingdale's — major holiday destinations in the nation's retail capital — would be disrupted, with employees unable to get to work. For the same reason, a walkout could also interfere with multimillion-dollar corporate deals in the nation's financial capital.

Transit workers want 8 percent annual raises over three years, and contend they should get a share of the MTA's unexpected $1 billion surplus this year. And after the transit bombings in Madrid and London, they also want more terrorism training, saying they feel unprepared to handle disasters.

The agency has proposed 6 percent raises spread over 27 months, and says the surplus is not likely to happen again and needs to go toward future expenses. Deficits are predicted for upcoming years.

A strike could be costly for the union, too. A walkout would be illegal under state law, and the workers could face tough penalties. Strengthening the transit agency's hand, a judge issued an injunction Tuesday that bars the workers from striking.

They could lose two days' pay for every day on strike. And the city is asking for additional damages against individual transit workers: $25,000 for the first day of the walkout, doubling each day thereafter. The city is also seeking damages from the union of $1 million for the first day, doubling thereafter in a similar pattern.

Overtime for the police alone would cost $10 million a day, the city says, since officers would have to maintain order in the streets.

For weeks, officials have been drawing up a contingency plan. It would require cars entering the busiest areas of Manhattan to carry at least four people. Also, some streets would be closed to all but emergency vehicles. Taxis would be allowed to pick up multiple fares, and commuter rail lines would increase service.

Many companies are encouraging employees to telecommute or work out of offices outside the city in the event of a strike. Some are arranging buses and ferries for their employees.

"It would affect me in a major way because I don't know how I would get downtown," said Kisha Smalls, who takes the subway to get from her home in the Bronx to class in Manhattan. "I'd probably have to stay home — I hope it doesn't happen but they need their money so I understand."

The mayor said commuters might want to find a friend who lives close to school or work and has a couch they can sleep on.

That is exactly what Angel DeJesus has done. He arranged to stay with friends in the Bronx, to which he commutes every day from his home in East Orange, N.J. But he doubts he will have to put those plans into motion.

"It hasn't happened since the '80s, so I'm not concerned," he said.

The last transit strike was in April 1980. For 11 days, subways and buses sat motionless while New Yorkers devised new ways to get around. A reported 65,000 rode bicycles, 60,000 walked and others embraced more creative modes of transportation, such as private helicopters and roller skates.

Long after the subways started moving again, a trend lingered: Many women who put on sneakers for that long walk to work continued to dress that way for commuting comfort, and a 1980s office fashion was born.