NEW YORK – Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 may go on strike Dec. 16 and the nation’s largest public transportation system, moving more than 7 million people daily, may come to a stop.

The union isn’t ignoring the prospect of hundreds of thousands of commuters walking or biking their way to work, or sharing taxis. While this is a real possibility, the union said it has done all it can to negotiate in good faith with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

Roger Toussaint, Local 100 president, said the two sides are “continents apart.”

At a Dec. 7 press conference, Toussaint said the MTA, only ten days before the old contract expired, offered nothing “but wage and healthcare cuts.”

Living standards are a top priority for the union and its members. MTA wants the union to cede to a three-year wage freeze, while employee-paid health-care increases to $400 more per year in 2004 and $800 more per year by 2005. According to the union, the average transit worker would be $1,950 poorer than they are today and $5,794 poorer in inflation-adjusted dollars.

Safety is another priority for the union. Within the past month, two transport workers, Kurien Baby and Joy Antony, have died on the job and TWU members are demanding more safety regulations and greater enforcement of existing ones.

The union, which represents virtually all bus drivers, train operators, train and track maintenance personnel, token booth staff, platforms and service car cleaners, and handle mechanical equipment repair, is also working with other organizations fighting against fare increases.

The TWU has a rich history of militant rank-and-file trade unionism and coalition building. On Dec. 16 thousands of TWU members will participate in a Brooklyn to City Hall march. Members of the Communication Workers of America District Council 1, representing Verizon workers who are facing big layoffs, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 1707 and 37, the Professional Staff Congress, Jobs with Justice, the Student Labor Action Project and many others will also participate.

They will be protesting proposed city budget cuts in social services and health care programs, day care, schools and universities and possible subway and bus fare increases.

But if TWU and MTA cannot reach an agreement by the Dec. 15 deadline and a strike is called, members of the union may also face jail sentences and fines, some as high as two days pay for every day on strike.

According to New York’s Taylor Law, public workers are prohibited from striking. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is threatening to severely punish striking workers and the union leadership.

The Taylor Law looms against the transport workers, but it isn’t their only threat. The Metropolitan Transport Authority and Mayor Bloomberg, in an attempt to mold public opinion, have depicted themselves as “heroes” in what local media has dubbed an “illegal strike threat.”

The real issue, many have said, is dignity and respect on the job and an affordable, safe, unionized public transportation system.

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