NYC Commuter Chaos

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Millions of commuters were left to their own devices for a second day, as contract talks between New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and transit workers remained stalled. A judge fined the union $1 million for every day missed, and the city is now asking a court to levy fines of up to $25,000 on each of the 33,000 striking workers. The union is under pressure from within the labor movement as well, with the international parent organization of the Transport Workers Union coming out against the walkout by its New York local.

The strike, which comes in the teeth of New York holiday shopping and tourism season and could cost the city up to $400 million a day, sent many of the system's 7 million daily riders improvising new commute routes in the early morning darkness with the temperature once again dipping into the low 20s.

Thousands joined Mayor Michael Bloomberg in walking across the Brooklyn Bridge for a second day. Checkpoints became chokepoints in all five boroughs as traffic police strictly enforced a four-passenger minimum in all cars and cabs, with some Brooklyn and Manhattan traffic bottlenecks even more snarled than on Tuesday. An information-age strike does, however, allow for some information-age solutions. When talks began to sour, Craigslist filled with hundreds of posters looking for rideshares to and from work. City websites offered New York's netizens .pdf files of traffic routes and restrictions. And untold thousands became telecommuters overnight. But for those who needed to show up to work, the remedies were decidedly old-fashioned: walk, bike, or, if they had enough people to fill a car, sit in miles of gridlock.

Transit strikes have convulsed the city before, and they've been neither quick nor easy. In a 1906 strike, the New York Times wrote that the few operating trains were so crowded that passengers had to scramble out of the windows to get on or off. It took President Lyndon Johnson's personal intervention to end a 12-day strike in 1966, which interrupted, among other things, the trial of Malcolm X's assassins. In April 1980, Mayor Ed Koch pioneered the pep rally walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to show New Yorkers how to survive 11 days without public transportation. But Tuesday's walkout was the first in more than 25 years, and the city that had gotten used to labor talking tough and making hollow walkout threats seemed genuinely, dejectedly surprised by the strike.

"I can't believe it," said Emma Simonich, a 27-year-old administrative assistant at the end of a 45-minute walk to work yesterday. "They're holding the city for ransom." She considered herself lucky to be able to walk. But getting to work is one thing; holiday shopping is a far more daunting task. "Please God, just sort it out," she pleaded. "It's almost Christmas, for goodness' sake." Despite the growing pressure, the bad blood between the workers and the MTA may prevent a quick resumption of talks. In the weeklong walkup to the Monday midnight deadline, both union and transit officials seemed more intent on trading tirades at the podium than on resolving the prickly healthcare, wage and pension issues that divided them. MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow, a silver-haired real estate millionaire, and union president Roger Toussaint, a pugnacious Trinidadian immigrant who started his career as a subway car cleaner, were the key negotiators in a contract agreement three years ago. But this round, neither a late intervention by Senator Hilary Clinton, nor tough talk from Governor George Pataki, nor various injunctions from state courts prevented the strike. The union rejected an eleventh-hour offer from the MTA that found common ground on retirement age, but offered too few concessions on pension and healthcare costs.

The specifics of the talks, however, were lost on most of those struggling through the morning commute. A lawyer who only gave his name as Ben, clutching a coffee and a cigarette on 6th Avenue early Tuesday morning, says he doesn't care who's right or wrong in the labor talks: "I really only care about getting to work." With three days' worth of clothes in a bag on his shoulder, Ben planned on sleeping on a friend's couch for the rest of the workweek instead of trying to freestyle a route to and from his home in Queens. A prolonged strike would carry heavy risks for politicians as well as the union. Governor Pataki, who is eyeing a presidential bid in 2008, has taken a barrage of criticism for not playing a more active role with the MTA board, which he appointed. Mayor Bloomberg spent a testy morning lashing out at union officials, saying that the MTA should only restart contract talks after the "selfish" and "illegal" strike had been called off. The union and the MTA both signaled a willingness to resume negotiations, but despite reports of a state mediator kibbitzing with union leaders, no direct meeting between the two sides had been announced.

Cab driver Medet Fidan, 32, is among the few New Yorkers not upset by the strike. If cabs can get four people in the car and make it into Manhattan, they can spend the rest of the day charging the strike rate of $10 or more per person. He understands why the workers walked out, but says that transit workers would be wrong to expect the city that never sleeps to be too patient. "If New Yorkers start to suffer," he says, "they're not going to support anybody."