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Fine Imposed on Striking N.Y.C. Transit Union

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Millions of New Yorkers struggled to get around today after the city's bus and subway workers walked off the job early this morning. Traffic evaporated on some Manhattan streets, while others were packed with cars and taxis trying to get people to their destinations. This afternoon a state judge imposed a $1 million a day fine against the Transport Workers Union for defying a state law that prohibits strikes by public employees. Here's New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Mayor MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (Republican, New York City): This strike is costing us. It is costing people their jobs. It will cost billions in lost economic activity. It is robbing people of their opportunities to earn a living and provide for their families.

NORRIS: The Transport Workers Union wants higher wages and better benefits. Its president said the workers want to preserve dignity and respect on the job and want a decent living for future employees. NPR's Luke Burbank has been out since before dawn, and he filed this report.

LUKE BURBANK reporting:

This was not the day New York state trooper Wade Braithwaite was going to win any popularity contests.

Officer WADE BRAITHWAITE (New York State Trooper): Hi, sir. You need more passengers to get into Manhattan with a vehicle, OK? So you're going to have to go out this way. I'm sorry you got lost, but, unfortunately, you can't go into Manhattan unless you have the passengers. All right?

Unidentified Man: I don't know, I don't know.

Officer BRAITHWAITE: You're going to have to go back out this way. Sorry.

BURBANK: Perched at one of the on-ramps leading onto the Brooklyn Bridge and eventually Manhattan, Braithwaite's job was to keep drivers with fewer than three passengers out of the city. Many had waited in long, long lines just to be sent back the way they came, but Braithwaite was unfazed.

Officer BRAITHWAITE: Don't they listen to the news that there is a strike? The strike has been impending for almost two weeks now. All of a sudden it's a surprise to people.

BURBANK: The passenger rule is part of the city's contingency plan, an attempt to mitigate the effects of millions of commuters suddenly finding themselves without a ride. The city is hoping the high occupancy rule and the strategic closure of certain Manhattan streets will get people in and out of the city while leaving room for emergency vehicles to get around. In an afternoon press conference, Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the plan.

Mayor BLOOMBERG: The city is functioning and functioning well considering the severe circumstances that we are in.

BURBANK: But things looked a little less rosy to this caller to "The Brian Lehrer Show" on public radio station WNYC.

(Soundbite of "The Brian Lehrer Show")

Mr. BRIAN LEHRER (Host): Elizabeth in Harlem, you're on WNYC.

ELIZABETH (Caller): In Harlem I'm sitting here looking out of my window. The traffic has been totally blocked on 135th Street and Madison Avenue so that I'm really sick of the mayor at this point. His contingency plan took care of downtown, but he gave absolutely no consideration to the residents of Harlem.

BURBANK: Karen Ebanks(ph), her mother and a male friend were trying to get to Harlem, but they needed to pack a fourth person into their older red Toyota if they were to be allowed onto the Brooklyn Bridge.

Ms. KAREN EBANKS: I need someone to go with us to Manhattan.

BURBANK: So I volunteered.

Ms. PEARL WATT(ph): God bless you, sir.

BURBANK: Ebanks' mother, Pearl Watt, was riding in the back seat and was especially grateful because, she said, she was late for her job as a home health care worker. She usually rides the subway, and her opinion on the strike seemed to be a fairly common one: sympathy for the union mixed with annoyance over the hassle she was enduring.

Ms. WATT: This is not right, I don't believe so. They shouldn't let them strike. They should do what they should do to let the train and the bus continue running.

BURBANK: Eventually the three did make it to their destination, relieved but also worried. If the strike persists, they'll need to find another complete stranger to ride with them tomorrow morning. Luke Burbank, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Luke Burbank
Luke Burbank is kind of amazed that NPR is letting him co-host its new morning show, The Bryant Park Project, NPR's new morning news show launched on October 1, 2007.