Buses, trains ready to roll as N.Y. transit strike ends

Union, MTA appear to strike deal on pensions and medical insurance payments


New York -- Thousands of New York City transit workers put down their picket signs and streamed into bus depots and railyards last night to restart the nation's largest transit system, after leaders of their union agreed to a tentative framework for a new contract and ended a 60-hour strike that hobbled the city.

After three frenetic and frustrating days of carpooling, biking, roller skating and trudging to work in frigid temperatures, New Yorkers reacted joyfully to the news that the city's sprawling network of subways and buses would soon be running again. Transit officials said they expected the system to come haltingly back to life last night, but that it would be running at nearly full capacity by today's rush hour.

"I'm so happy," said Christine Grant, 34, of Rego Park, Queens, who bought a weekly MetroCard Monday but never got to use it to commute to her job in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. "You take things for granted until something like this happens and then you realize how much you need the subway."

The abrupt return - many strikers simply laid down their placards and walked into the buildings they had been picketing - capped a day of fast-moving developments in a labor showdown that just a day before seemed headed for an intractable and even angry stalemate.

The outlines of the agreement to return to work, and how close the two sides were to an agreement on the issues that provoked the strike, remained unclear. But it appeared that the deal involved the authority's agreement not to insist on pension reform and the union's willingness to discuss higher payments for medical insurance, officials said.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg hailed the union's decision, a state judge postponed a hearing that could have seen union leaders jailed, and many workers expressed relief that the strike was over.

"In 21 years as a transit worker, this has probably been one of the best days of my life," said Dennis H. Boyd, a train operator and member of the union's executive board, who voted to end the strike. "The membership wanted to make a statement, they wanted to go to battle with the MTA, and we fulfilled that."

The strike - the city's first transit walkout in a quarter-century - paralyzed New York's mass transit system at the height of the holiday season, devastating sales for retailers, enraging the mayor and governor, and making it difficult for New Yorkers to get to jobs, schools and doctors' appointments.

As buses began to warm up last night and workers went about the complex task of bringing the 660-mile subway system back to life - inspecting tracks, testing brakes, restoring power - the mood could not have been more different than it was 24 hours earlier, when many signs suggested the strike could be a long one.

On Wednesday, Roger Toussaint, the president of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union, had traded barbs with Bloomberg and Gov. George E. Pataki from afar as all three drew what seemed to be deeper lines in the sand. Toussaint said he would agree to talk only if the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would remove the nettlesome question of pensions from the negotiations; Pataki said no talks could take place until the strike ended.

But behind the scenes, both sides were meeting with state mediators. At 2 a.m. yesterday, Toussaint arrived at the Grand Hyatt hotel, where negotiations had been taking place, suggesting major progress was occurring.

Three state mediators conducted an 11 a.m. news conference that gave New Yorkers their first reasons for hope.

The mediators said the union's leadership had agreed to send strikers back to work after accepting the preliminary framework in which the transportation authority hinted it might take off the table the main obstacle to a settlement: its demands that future workers pay 6 percent of their wages toward their pensions.

Around 2:30 p.m., the union's executive board voted 36-5 to end the strike. Two abstained. A half hour later, Toussaint, low-keyed in contrast to the defiant tone he took on Wednesday, told reporters and union members gathered in the cold: "I'm pleased to announce that the Local 100 executive board just voted overwhelmingly to direct transit workers to return to work immediately and to resume bus and subway service throughout the five boroughs of New York City, and we thank riders for their patience and forbearance."

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