Volume 75, Number 31 | December 21 - 27, 2005

Villager photo by Q. Sakamaki

A skateboarder commutes in the East Village on Day 1 of the transit strike.

As transit grinds to halt, New Yorkers get moving

By Lincoln Anderson

After the dreaded possibility of a transit strike became a reality, on early Tuesday morning Downtown sidewalks and streets were teeming with commuters on foot, bike, skateboard, rollerblades and electric wheelchair as people powered to work and appointments. Many also took the day off to do holiday shopping.

Villager photo by Q. Sakamaki
Attorney Arthur Schwartz, former lead counsel of the Transport Workers Union, left, at the union hall on West End Ave. the day before the strike was called.
The rude shock of the strike was coupled with a subfreezing temperature of 22 degrees, further adding to the day’s difficulties. How individuals met the strike and cold varied from person to person.

Two 27-year-old friends passing by the 14th St./Union Square subway station were taking things in stride, at least for the moment. Yael Gottlieb and Meredith Kahn had walked from Williamsburg over the bridge and were headed up to Midtown. They’d already been hoofing it an hour and probably had another half-hour to go. But they’d been talking along the way, which had eased the thought of their long march.

“It seems chill,” Kahn, an accessories designer, said of people’s response to the transit walkout. “People are on bikes, walking. I don’t know about later. Maybe we’ll all be buff — and irritated. It’s kind of a novelty right now.”

“Anytime you have something like this since 9/11 people have been pretty friendly,” observed Gottlieb, who is in the nonprofit sector. Like 9/11, it was the latest in a series of major events that city residents have had to endure. “You had 9/11, the blackout and now this,” she said.

They were bundled up in shearling hats, thermal underwear and boots.

“The works,” Kahn said. “Oh yeah, we got geared up. I have extra nuts, cheese in my backpack. It’s a hike — an urban hike.”

“And a camera” to snap photos along the way, added Gottlieb.

Gil Spencer, 80, a former chief editor of the Daily News, was walking around Union Square looking for a Christmas tree. If not for the strike, he would have been riding the subway Uptown to a dentist’s appointment.

“I have mixed impressions,” he said. “I think maybe the union was shooting too high. And of course it was the perfect time to do it — right during Christmas.”

Villager photo by Gary He

Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Commissioner Joseph Bruno of the city’s Office of Emergency Management join commuters in crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on Tuesday morning.

Sporting a shaggy mane of red hair and a bulky red down jacket, Gabriel Guimaraes, 42, said he would be heading up to W. 96th St. in a little while, where he would teach opera classes to two students. He’d walk all the way, even though he has an artificial hip, which he got after a bike accident and which is infected because he has AIDS. Cab fare under the city’s contingency plan, which set fare zones below 96th St., was too high.

“I’m broke right now,” he said. “What is it — $10 per zone? And this is like three zones? I might as well stay home — spend $60 to teach two lessons?” Asked if his hip would hurt if he walked that far, he said, “A little bit — I have a Percoset if I need it.”

Lizzy Nestor, 13, a student at the United Nations International School who lives in the West Village, also said she’d use the day to do some shopping and hang out with friends. School had been cancelled.

“I would be having a science test,” she said.

Rollerblading gingerly over the cracked asphalt in Washington Square Park, Lisa, who did not give her last name, was pretty irritated by the inconvenience of it all. A music professor, she had just started out from her Thompson St. home and was en route to the CUNY Graduate Center on 34th St. for an “academic appointment.” She only had a minute to talk, she said hurriedly.

“I’m not educated enough to know both sides,” she said of the labor dispute. “I just wish they wouldn’t do it at this time. It’s the end of the semester. It’s Christmas week.”

While local residents were dealing with the strike in terms of their commutes, one Villager, attorney Arthur Schwartz, as a counsel to the Transport Workers Union, was enmeshed in the contract negotiations, and then, once the strike hit, immediately began representing the union against contempt charges filed by State Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones, who, on Tuesday, slapped the transit union with a $1 million-a-day fine for each day its workers remain on strike.

“I was stunned. Koch got a half million dollar fine in eight days,” Schwartz said, referring to the transit strike under former Mayor Ed Koch.

One of the city’s leading labor lawyers, Schwartz was the Transport Workers Union’s lead counsel for four and a half years, but six months ago decided to take a lesser role because he now has two small children from his second marriage and wants to have more time with them.

Before the strike, Schwartz had a run-in with Michael Cardozo, the city’s corporation counsel, who was trying to get a judge to rule that any activities promoting a walkout, such as protesting or yelling “No Contract! No Work!” at a rally could be punishable by fines of $25,000 for the first instance, $50,000 the second instance and $100,000 the third instance.

“I called the lawsuit hogwash and dared him to show up in court,” Schwartz said. Cardozo didn’t show, but issued a release saying no appointment had been set. “If that had passed, the union would owe the city $415 billion — it’s like stupid,” he said. “It’s beneath the corporation counsel.”

Schwartz said it was quite an experience to watch the union representatives make phone calls to the bus and subway yards at 3 a.m. the day of the strike and tell the workers to bring all the vehicles in. He stayed up all night prepping for his contempt hearing, which he argued that morning on one hour’s sleep.

As for how long the work stoppage will go on, he said, “I think it could last at least a week — nobody’s showing any signs of backing down.”

A longtime member of Greenwich Village’s Community Board 2, Schwartz’s chairs the board’s Waterfront and Parks Committee, which has also seen plenty of action lately with the ongoing disputes over the proposed Washington Square Park renovation. Asked what was more nerve wracking, dealing with the transit negotiations and court actions — during which he’s been spending long nights at the Grand Hyatt hotel away from his family — or an angry crowd of hundreds of Villagers upset over the renovation plans for the square, Schwartz said, obviously, the transit situation.

“But maybe that’s why I know how to stand in front of 400 people,” he noted.

Another Villager, Koch was the last mayor to be in office during a transit strike.

“We crushed the union in 1980,” Koch said on Monday. “I kept the city going. They walked over the bridges. It was when people started walking to work in their sneakers and carrying their shoes — and they still do.”

Koch pushed for harsh enforcement of the Taylor Law, which fines striking transit workers two days’ pay, though he said previous mayors hadn’t really used it.

“I insisted. You have to teach them a lesson,” he said. “And we taught them a big lesson.”

The day before the current strike, Koch predicted it wouldn’t happen, based on the treatment he meted out 25 years ago during that strike, which lasted 11 days. The 1980 walkout cost the union $1 million in fines and millions of dollars more in members’ union dues that the city kept instead of paying directly to the union, as well as costing striking workers 22 days of their salary, Koch said.

“I think they will ultimately remember the pain and they will not strike,” Koch said with assurance on Monday. But he was wrong, of course. Maybe the union’s philosophy is “no pain, no gain.”

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