| Pedestrians walk past a closed subway gate. (AFP)
New York, Dec. 20 (Reuters): New Yorkers struggled into work on foot, by bike and in cars shared with strangers after subway and bus workers walked off the job for the first time in 25 years today, stranding millions of people.
America’s largest mass transit system ground to a halt during the peak tourist and shopping season days before Christmas in a strike that city officials have warned could cost New York up to $400 million a day.
For Joy Bennett, a US immigrant from Jamaica living in the Bronx, the strike provided her first opportunity to experience Manhattan from above ground as she normally commutes through the city on trains and subways entirely below ground.
“This is beautiful,” she said, walking through the dazzling lights of Times Square before dawn.“I like it up here.”
Last-ditch talks between the Transport Workers Union and the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority collapsed shortly before a midnight strike deadline.
Within hours, the strike kicked in, shutting down the entire subway and bus system, which carries 7 million people a day. The last such strike in 1980 lasted 11 days and this one too can drag on for some time.
From before dawn, police set up checkpoints at bridge and tunnel entrances and at 96th Street, turning away cars with less than four people to avoid gridlock in Manhattan.
Drivers desperate to fill their cars invited strangers to get in, while pedestrians made for Shea Stadium in Queens where city authorities had organised a makeshift carpool centre and cyclists streamed over bridges into the city.
Vehicles were backed up to get into Manhattan, where traffic was still moving at rush hour because so many cars were being refused entry. People streamed into the city on commuter buses as well as on the suburban trains and ferries that were still running.
Many Wall Street firms had provided shuttle buses to bring workers in and financial markets were operating as normal.
”It didn't really affect me, but it's obviously crippled the city,” said Peter Lobravico, head of merger arbitrage trading at brokerage Wall St. Access, who shared a cab with three others, each of whom paid full fare.“At least the cabbies are making out well,” he said.
'I LIKE IT UP HERE'
Others were angry. A state law prohibits strikes by public employees, and union members could face heavy fines.
”They should all go to jail,” said Jim Giannella, 53, standing outside a Times Square station closed off with red tape.“They should have sat there and stayed on the job. It's just going to make everyone miserable.”
TWU chief Roger Toussaint said the union, representing 34,000 workers, voted overwhelmingly to strike.“Transit workers are tired of being underappreciated and disrespected.”
Union and management have been battling over wage hikes, health-care and pension costs and retirement age. The union disputed the MTA's contention that cutbacks in benefits are necessary, noting the agency has a $1 billion surplus.
Striking bus cleaner Everick Jacobs, 57, at a depot in Manhattan, said strike was necessary.“I feel sorry for the people, but we have got to stand up for ourselves.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg immediately denounced the strike as ”illegal and morally reprehensible” and a“cowardly attempt” by the union to gain leverage at the bargaining table.
”We cannot give the TWU the satisfaction of causing the havoc they desperately seek to create,” the mayor said.
Bloomberg, dressed casually in jeans and a leather jacket, joined hundreds of commuters streaming across the Brooklyn Bridge on foot toward Manhattan in the early morning sun.
Attorneys for the MTA and the city were expected in court on Tuesday to seek a contempt ruling against the union. (Additional reporting by Dan Burns, Larry Fine, Michael Flaherty, New York newsroom staff)