Transit Strike Paralyzes New York City

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Seven million commuters in New York City have to find alternative means of transportation Tuesday after mass transit workers went on strike. Mike Pesca reports how officials, residents and passengers are handling the first strike by New York City transit workers in 25 years.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Workers at the country's busiest mass transit system are on strike, shutting down all train and bus service in New York City. The union, Transport Workers Local 100, is demanding bigger raises and pension protection. Union President Roger Toussaint called the strike at a news conference at 3:00 this morning.

Mr. ROGER TOUSSAINT (President, Transport Workers Local 100): All Local 100 representatives and shop stewards are directed to report to your assigned strike locations, picket lines or facility nearest you immediately.

BRAND: Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Peter Kalikow responded to the union's action with these words.

Mr. PETER KALIKOW (Chair, Metropolitan Transportation Authority): Make no mistake, these are bullying tactics. We will not accept them. Every effect that the law allows will be brought to bear on all striking members.

BRAND: From New York, NPR's Mike Pesca has more.

MIKE PESCA reporting:

Here are some key numbers related to the transit strike: 3 percent, 3 1/2 percent and 4 percent--those are the salary increases offered by the MTA. The union wanted 8, though it's been reported they'd bend to 6 if their pension demands were met. But here are the most important numbers: 25 and 14. That's the temperature and the windchill on this late December day when many New Yorkers find themselves having to walk and shiver instead of swipe and ride. Frank Mardero(ph) was one of them.

Mr. FRANK MARDERO: I'm from Long Island. I went to Penn Station and I walked. It was about a 20-minute commute. And there was a lot less cars, so it was a lot easier for us to walk.

PESCA: Mardero was lucky to even have the option. The suburban rail lines, though sympathetic to the transit union, are running. This allowed Richard Rose and Tony Cassino into the city from points north. But once they made it to Grand Central Station, there was no subway there to take them down to Wall Street. Luckily, the firm the two men work for provided a shuttle. Unluckily, they missed the part of the companywide e-mail that said you needed to make a reservation. For Cassino, waiting in the cold was proof that New Yorkers could withstand what he considered a bullying union.

Mr. TONY CASSINO: Well, we were just saying that we should do this as long as it takes to, you know--we shouldn't let the union dictate this. It's an illegal strike. So I would do this every day if I had to for weeks. This is a threat. They're shutting down the city in an illegal strike.

PESCA: He's right; it is illegal for New York public employees to strike. But New York has a history of union leaders breaking the law and even serving short jail stints but winning better contracts for their workers. United Federation of Teachers leader Albert Shanker became so well-known for this tactic that he became a punch line to a joke in Woody Allen's "Sleeper." But Cassino was wrong about the pronoun he used. The `we' he referred to as being against the union did not include the man standing next to him, Richard Rose.

Mr. RICHARD ROSE: On that, by the way, I happen to be for the union. So...

PESCA: He was saying that the longer it goes on, the worse it is for the union. But do you think that's true?

Mr. ROSE: I think it could be true. That's one excellent way of busting a union, as you know. But, you know, look, a living wage in New York City is not $55,000 a year. I'm sorry. You're not just pushing a button. You have the safety of millions of people a day. So I think that they should get a decent raise, that their benefits should continue and that they should continue for the next generation, too.

PESCA: The debate could go on, but the wait did not. A co-worker flagged down Cassino and Rose and a third man and said a private car would take them all downtown. It wasn't free like the shuttle, but it was warm and it was leaving immediately. The terms of that offer proved acceptable. Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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