New Yorkers ready their Rollerblades

Reflecting labor's new boldness, transit workers threaten to strike

With the threat of a transit strike at the height of the holiday season looming over New York City, commuters seem to be taking it all in stride.

Charles Waters says he'll just take the rest of the holidays off. It takes him an hour and a half to walk from his Brooklyn apartment to his midtown law office and "that's too far."

Annabelle Freeman, a public-relations executive, says she'll work from home. Rosalyn Ray plans to have her husband drive her to the Brooklyn Bridge and then walk 50 blocks to her office.

"I can understand them wanting to strike, but please work it out," she says, hurrying down 42nd Street. "It affects too many people."

With city and state coffers brimming across the country, municipal workers have felt left out of the economic boom. In the past few years, transit workers in San Francisco and Philadelphia walked off the job to demand higher wages. But the grievances run particularly deep in New York, where workers sacrificed wage gains in 1996 to help ease the city's budget woes.

Now they say it's time for payback. On Wednesday at 12:01 a.m., New York city's 33,000 transit workers are threatening to walk off the job unless the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) agrees to pay hikes far above the average wage increase of 3.5 to 4 percent a year.

"American workers' wages have stood still in the economic boom, and that doesn't feel good," says Kate Bronfenbrenner, an economist at Cornell University's School of Labor Relations in Ithaca, N.Y. "This is really an attempt to catch up."

Any substantial wage increase in New York is expected to go straight to the fare box, hiking the already stiff $1.50 New Yorkers pay to ride the subways and buses. And that could have a ripple effect across the country.

"What happens in New York will clearly have implications or every bus and rapid-transit system in the country, since they measure themselves against New York," says Ken Goldstein, a labor economist at the Conference Board here.

Giuliani's concern

Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) is worried about the impact a substantial wage hike for the transit workers could have on other municipal contracts that have to be negotiated next year. They'll expire at a time when he's expected to be running for the US Senate seat now held by Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D).

"Suppose the subway conductors get a 27 percent raise over three years: It will hard to hold the cops down to 15 percent," says Mr. Goldstein.

After spending a weekend holed up at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown Manhattan, the MTA and union negotiators both made some concessions, but they remain far apart.

Mayor Giuliani, meanwhile, is preparing for a fight. If the transit workers walk, he says he'll go to court to seek an injunction to force them back on the job. If they refuse, he's asking for stiff penalties for individual workers as well as their union.

"I think the union, by talking about a strike, is talking about violating the law," says Giuliani. "I think they're acting in a very irresponsible way."

Under state law, it's illegal for public employees to go out on strike. But this hasn't stopped them before. Transit workers walked off the job twice in the past 30 years. In 1966, the surprise winter strike almost shutdown the city under Mayor John Lindsay.

In 1980, New Yorkers coped better under Mayor Ed Koch, who had enough lead time to develop contingency plans. People rode bicycles, skateboards, and jogged to work.

Back then, the transit workers were led by fiery Mike Quinn, who showed little respect for court dictates. When judges ordered the union back to work, Mr. Quinn refused. He and other union leaders were jailed and slapped with fines and penalties. After the strike was settled, most of the fines were forgiven.

Dj vu all over again

In some ways, the union's circumstances today are similar. President Willie James is under pressure from militants within the union to produce substantial wage gains.

At a boisterous rally last week, some 12,000 transit workers chanted: "Willie, You say go, and New York City will stop."

But if the union does go on strike, Giuliani has made it clear he intends to collect the financial penalties. He's asking for as much as $25 million each day the union is on strike. And workers could be fined as much as two days pay for each day they're on the picket line.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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