NEW YORK — More than 7 million people in and around New York City were forced to walk, find a cab, drive into work or just work from home Tuesday after more than 30,000 Transport Workers Union members walked off the job.
Following days of acrimonious labor talks and one strike deadline extension, subways and buses ground to a halt shortly after 3 a.m. Tuesday. Authorities began locking turnstiles and shuttering subway entrances shortly after the strike, which is illegal under New York State law, began. The city braced for a rush hour filled with disorder by placing police officers en masse around the city, among other preparations.
At one subway booth, a handwritten sign read, "Strike in Effect. Station Closed. Happy Holidays!!!!"
At Penn Station — a major hub for commuter trains coming in and out of New Jersey and for Amtrak — an announcement over the loudspeaker told people to "please exit the subway system."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg began putting into effect a sweeping emergency plan to reduce gridlock and keep certain streets open for emergency vehicles. It included requiring cars coming into Manhattan below 96th Street to have at least four occupants until 11 a.m. Police officers were checking each car and refusing to let those with fewer than four passengers continue into the heart of the city; some drivers were picking up random passengers off the street to meet the quota. However, vehicles traveling within Manhattan don't need to have four passengers.
Bloomberg, a subway rider himself who spent the night at the Office of Emergency Management headquarters, walked over the Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall in the morning in solidarity with the thousands of Brooklyn residents making their way in to work on foot amid freezing temperatures.
The temperature at 7:30 a.m. EST in the city was only 22 degrees, but felt like 10 degrees with the wind chill. Two dozen Santas from Brookstone's department store stood on the bridge to greet commuters as they walked or biked across the bridge.
Commuter frustration was evident both before the strike and after it was called.
Darryl Padilla, a 20-year-old club promoter, was trying to get on the train at Penn Station when he found out that the strike had begun. He didn't have enough cash to take a cab to his home on the northern tip of Manhattan.
"I didn't think they were going to shut down. I can't take a cab," he said.
"I think they all should get fired," said Eddie Goncalves, a doorman trying to get home after his overnight shift. He said he expected to spend an extra $30 per day in cab and train fares.
"Enough is enough," said Craig DeRosa, who relies on the subway to get to work. "Their benefits are as rich as you see anywhere in this country and they are still complaining. I don't get it."
In Queens, Brunilda Ayala said she had no sympathy for the union after the bus strike began in her neighborhood.
"How can you give a raise to a bus driver who would make three old ladies walk home in the cold?" asked Ayala, 57.
Huge lines formed at ticket booths for the commuter railroads that stayed in operation, and Manhattan-bound traffic backed up at many bridges and tunnels as police turned away cars with fewer than four people. Meanwhile, transit workers took to the picket lines with signs that read "We Move NY. Respect Us!"
Commuters, scrounging for ways to get to work, lined up for cabs and gathered in clusters on designated spots throughout the city for company vans and buses to shuttle them to their offices.
"There were hundreds of people waiting for cabs, pulling doors left and right," said taxi driver Angel Aponte, who left his meter off and charged $10 per person.
The strike is New York's citywide mass transit walkout first since an 11-day strike in 1980.
The union called the strike after a late round of negotiations broke down Monday night. Union President Roger Toussaint said the union board voted overwhelmingly to call the strike, the city's first in more than 25 years.
It is illegal for mass transit workers to strike in New York, which means the 33,000 bus and subway employees will incur huge fines — two days' pay for each day on strike.
"This is a fight over dignity and respect on the job, a concept that is very alien to the MTA," Toussaint said in announcing the strike. "Transit workers are tired of being underappreciated and disrespected."
The news drew an angry response from the mayor, governor and head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow called the strike "a slap in the face" to all New Yorkers and said state lawyers will immediately head to court in seeking to block the walkout.
"This is not only an affront to the concept of public service, it is a cowardly attempt by Roger Toussaint and the TWU to bring the city to its knees to create leverage for their own bargaining position," said Bloomberg at a news conference.
Bloomberg has said the walkout could cost the city as much as $400 million a day, and would be particularly harsh at the height of the holiday shopping and tourist season. He said a strike would freeze traffic into "gridlock that will tie the record for all gridlocks."
"They have broken the trust of the people of New York," said Gov. George Pataki. "They have not only endangered our city and state's economy, but they are also recklessly endangering the health and safety of each and every New Yorker."
MTA spokesman Tom Kelly said the agency "put a fair offer" on the table before talks broke down. "Unfortunately, that offer has been rejected."
The union said the latest MTA offer included annual raises of 3 percent, 4 percent and 3.5 percent; the previous proposal included 3 percent raises each year. MTA workers earn between $47,000 and $55,000 annually. The MTA originally had demanded an 8 percent pay raise per year for their members.
Pension issues have been a major sticking point in the talks. The MTA wants to raise the age at which new employees become eligible for full pensions from 55 to 62, which the union says is unfair.
But Toussaint said the union wanted a better offer from the MTA, especially when the agency has a $1 billion surplus this year.
"With a $1 billion surplus, this contract between the MTA and the Transport Workers Union should have been a no-brainer," Toussaint said. "Sadly, that has not been the case."
The down-to-the-wire negotiations came as workers at two private bus lines in Queens walked off the job, a move meant to step up pressure on the MTA.
The contract expired Friday at midnight, but the two sides agreed to keep talking through the weekend and the union set a new deadline for Tuesday.
According to the MTA, about 4.5 million people ride the subways — which serve all five boroughs — on the average weekday and 1.4 billion each year, ranking New York fifth in the world in annual subway ridership. City buses serve Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten Island. About 2.4 million people ride the buses daily, and about 740 million ride them each year. New York ranks first among annual bus ridership in North America.