Back on Track But at What Cost?

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Commuter rage gave way to relief this morning after labor mediators convinced striking New York City transit workers to return their jobs without a contract. That deal was reached on Thursday afternoon. Cursing the walkout had become a bloodsport for New Yorkers in the last three days, but at the 116th Street station in uptown Manhattan, the strike end brought a quick return to normalcy. Commuters streamed past the single station agent with barely a glance, while a couple of French tourists hovered nervously nearby before asking the agent for change for a $20. They were denied.

Waiting on the platform for the downtown 1 train, Steven, 55, was bringing his daughter Star to her first-grade class three miles away—a 10-minute subway trip that took an hour on foot during the strike. "Yeah, we're happy to have them back," he says, "but they just chose to strike this time of year so they could inflict maximum damage. It's reprehensible."

On Thursday morning, the war of words between union officials and politicians was on high boil. Michael Bloomberg called the union leaders thugs. Union president Roger Toussaint spat back, railing against the meddling of billionaire politicians who have never had to fight for their retirement. But behind the public volleys, private talks between the union and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) had already come close to an agreement that would get the trains rolling again. Shuttle diplomacy by a few low-profile labor mediators convinced the union to call off the strike, even without a contract, in time for the 4 p.m. shift to go straight to work. It took all night to get the hulking transit system back online safely, so Gotham faced one last strikebound slog home Thursday evening. During the late evening, scores of weary walkers rushed down subway stairs at a couple of stations at the rumble of subway trains emanating from the tracks only to be told by police that the cars were only being moved to prepare for the return to work. By early this morning, all 26 subway lines and 4,489 buses were on schedule.

The central issue the union fought for—undiminished pensions not just for current workers, but also for the new hires in the future—appears to have been conceded by the MTA going into the new talks. It is still unclear which pound of flesh the union will have to give in return. And while many transit workers seemed uneasy about calling off the strike without an inked contract, they seem willing to follow their leadership on faith.

Not all is peace and love in Gotham, however, even though this strike lasted only one-fourth as long the two previous modern strikes. Workers are still facing fines of $1,200 each—two days' pay for each for each of the three strike days. The union has been ordered to pay a separate $3 million fine. Toussaint is due in court to answer contempt charges, and could face jail time. And despite the thaw at the negotiating table, the governor and mayor have both said all penalties and fines should to be enforced.

The union has also made it clear that the strike was not just about dollars and cents, but about respect as well. The workers, Toussaint intoned, deserve to be noticed, not to mention appreciated, for their endless toil below ground, among the rats and the steel dust. The notice they gained this week, however, looked at times more like notoriety—from commuters carping about the relatively high transit worker salary to angry blogs posting pictures of various station agents sleeping in their booths before the strike. But on this morning, however, forgiveness was in the close subway station air.

Well, sort of. "Let's just say they did themselves a favor by coming back this quickly," says commuter Steven.