Why the NYC Transit Strike Isn't Over

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In a surprise coup at the ballot box on Friday, New York City transit workers refused to ratify the contract that their leadership negotiated for them in the wake of the three-day pre-Christmas strike, reviving fears that the city may again be paralyzed by a work stoppage.

The margin of defeat was rail-thin. Out of over 22,000 votes cast, there were just seven more nays than yeas. But short of a recount, the contract is dead—a stark reversal of fortunes for Transport Workers Union president Roger Toussaint. During the strike, the former subway car cleaner survived the wrath of millions of nettled commuters just long enough to win some real concessions from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Toussaint faces possible jail time for the strike, not to mention the millions in fines leveled at the union, but he had managed to preserve pensions and lock in pay increases substantial enough to make New York Governor George Pataki wonder aloud if the MTA hadn’t gotten ripped off in its rush to end the strike.

Those same concessions may have actually torn the union apart. Older workers were thrilled that pensions and retirement age were untouched, but younger workers fretted over the 1.5% of their salary that they would have had to contribute toward their own health care, especially since those payments could rise with increasing health care costs in the future. In the end, a demoralized Toussaint, who spent the last month campaigning vigorously in support of the contract, blamed the defeat Friday on a cabal of outside meddlers and internal enemies who peddled “downright lies” to the membership.

So is it time for New Yorkers to dust off their commuting sneakers? Not yet. Transit workers are driving, cleaning and conducting without a contract, but a renewed strike is still unlikely. The vote showed that the TWU is a house divided, and their discord may force them into binding arbitration with the MTA. For his part, Toussaint would only say that he’s ready to "go back to the drawing board".