As New Yorkers bundle up against the cold, they're enduring one of the less festive aspects of the holiday season in the Big Apple - the threat of a transit strike, something that's happened every three years or so for the past decade.
This year, the contract for the Transit Workers Union (TWU) runs out at midnight Thursday night, just in time to potentially squelch Fifth Avenue retailers' dreams of a merry and profitable Christmas season.
The city estimates a strike, which is illegal under New York State law, could cost businesses and taxpayers more than $700 million a day. That would "not be good," according to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for the city or the union, which officially works for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA.)
The TWU, which represents almost 34,000 bus and subway workers, is pushing for an 8 percent annual raise. The MTA is offering 3 percent. The union wants more respect from management. The MTA wants more productivity from workers. The union claims the MTA has a billion-dollar surplus. The mayor calls that amount "mythical."
So as the clock ticks down, negotiators are working overtime on the 14th floor of the Grand Hyatt hotel while union workers rally boisterously outside of Grand Central Terminal next door. And commuters are simply hoping for the best.
"Yesterday is the first day I actually started at all taking it as a serious possibility," said Deb Cullen on Tuesday, as she bought a greeting card in Grand Central before heading home. "I'm holding out hope that it won't happen."
A random sample of subway and train riders found that most don't think there will be a strike. That's in part because they've become accustomed to the TWU's threats usually being followed by a last-minute settlement. That's how the drama played out in 1995, 1999, and 2002. Indeed, the union hasn't followed through on a major strike threat in New York since 1980, when subway workers and bus drivers walked off the job for 11 days.
Since workers receive an average pay of between $54,000 and $62,000, as well as health and pension benefits, some commuters don't think the workers will risk their jobs.
"This is what always happens. It seems like a union tactic," says Christian Putnam, who sells benefit packages to private companies in the city. "These guys realize how good their benefit package is, so I don't think there will be a strike."
But Bobbie Steidd, a former TWU member who joined the rallying workers on 42nd Street earlier this week, says this year union workers are serious about getting improved working conditions and better pay.
"Things have gotten progressively worse since I retired [a few years ago], to the point where these guys are really fighting to walk the picket line," said Mr. Steidd, surrounded by nodding union workers. "The living [here] is not cheap. This is New York City,"
And so emergency contingency plans have become part of New Yorkers' holiday planning. If a strike occurs, the city will ban cars carrying fewer than four people from entering Manhattan below 96th Street during morning rush hour. Schools will open two hours late to give students time to get there, and several midtown streets and avenues will be closed to all but emergency vehicles.
Corporations are also hoping for the best but planning for the worst, booking blocks of hotel rooms for "essential personnel." Some companies are lining up car services.
"A lot of people are calling us looking to book for Friday, just in case," says Nasir Dean, a manager at Dial 7 Car and Limousines in Manhattan.
While most commuters interviewed didn't have a contingency plan, some are taking the mayor's advice and looking to sleep on a friend's couch near the office. Others have already changed their schedules.
Denise Davis, who commuted in from Poughkeepsie more than an hour each way for years, did something that many other commuters may envy.
"I just quit today because I found me a job closer to home," she says with a broad smile. "This is the last day I'll have to hop the subway, so I'm not worried at all."