Transit Countdown

All the holiday buntings, Christmas wreaths, and ringing Santa Claus bells up and down East 42nd Street this evening weren't enough to cheer up the grim negotiators who are trying to work out a new contract for 34,000 transit workers tonight.

At 4 P.M. Thursday - with just eight hours to go until the midnight strike deadline set by his union -- a grim-faced Roger Toussaint, the transit workers' union president, told a hotel room full of reporters that "there has been no progress whatsoever" in contract talks with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

He was no more optimistic a couple of hours later after he jay-walked across 42nd Street, followed by teachers' union president Randi Weingarten and Central Labor Council President Brian McLaughlin, to address a throng of cheering members.

"We are down to the wire," he told the rally. He accused MTA leaders and Mayor Bloomberg of substituting "threats, insults, and Taylor law fines" in place of bargaining. "The deadline is approaching, and all they want to talk about is the threat of $25,000-a-day fines for each one of you," he said.

The union chief also quickly shot down the suggestion made by MTA chairman Peter Kalikow earlier in the afternoon that the union accept binding arbitration in lieu of a negotiated deal.

"Our executive board will be convening in a few hours to present the MTA's best offer," Toussaint told the rally. "One thing I want to tell you is that the recommendation we make will never be arbitration. Our members control our destiny. The powers that be need to take notice."

Several city politicians joined the transit rally, including Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, city council members David Weprin of Queens, and Miguel Martinez of Washington Heights. Scott Stringer, the West Side assemblyman who was elected the new Manhattan Borough President last month, also spoke, singling out Governor Pataki for spending time today in New Hampshire in pursuit of support for his possible Presdiential bid in 2008. "I have a message for the governor. Come home," said Stringer. "He should be embarrassed to get off that plane. You can't be disengaged from this crisis; you have to be here."

Inside the hotel, MTA spokesman Tom Kelly told a press briefing in the late afternoon that there has been "some progress" at the bargaining table, but declined to give specifics. He said Kalikow "has had conversations with the governor."

The politics behind the logjam are complex. Pataki has rarely stepped forward to interject himself in transit talks but a breakdown in the talks this year, followed by a crushing strike, could send the message that the governor, who has announced that he will not seek reelection, isn't paying attention any more. Union officials, however, also fear that the governor may be looking to score points with national Republicans by coming down hard on the militant union.

On the union side of the table, there is the pressure to make up for what was considered a low wage package in the last contract in 2002. There is additional pressure from Metro North unions who are covered under strict federal labor laws that prevent railroad walkouts and have been without a contract with the MTA for three years. Toussaint brought a group of such leaders, representing 14 separate unions, to a press conference this afternoon. "For those of you who wonder why the TWU says a deadline is a deadline, here are 14 living examples of what happens when you let the MTA have its way," he said.

Those concerns have only added to the anxiety among negotiators. According to several people who have spent time on the 14th floor of the Grand Hyatt where talks are taking place, Toussaint's pessimism wasn't just pre-deadline posturing. "There just seems to be a fatalism to this," said one union ally. "I think there's going to be a strike."

If so, that strike won't necessarily take place at the stroke of midnight. Three years ago, with talks at a similar apparent impasse, Transport Workers Union Local 100 vice president Ed Watt dramatically waited until ten seconds before midnight before walking into the hotel's press room to announce that the clock had been stopped. That frozen time period continued for another 16 hours before Toussaint and Kalikow announced a deal that let the city take a breath.

But that deal came about after several small signs of progress. Side committees of union representatives and MTA officials hashed through issues like work safety rules and job titles while talks at the main table kept rolling. This year Toussaint has appeared to spend more time on an upper floor in the hotel, closeted with aides or whispering into a cell phone.

There were signs of exasperation among his members as well. One of the standard labor rally warm-ups these days is the call and response chant: "They say, 'Cut back,'" the labor leader shouts. "We say, 'Fight back,'" responds the crowd. At tonight's rally, vocal union members amended their part of the exchange. "We say, 'Fuck that,'" they screamed.

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