NEW YORK — By a margin of seven votes, city transit workers rejected a tentative contract between their union, Transport Workers Union Local 100, and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The main reason cited for the “no” vote was the provision that workers would for the first time have to pay for health coverage, but union leaders, members and elected officials point to disinformation in the media and interference by Gov. George Pataki.

The MTA is now pushing for binding arbitration. Local 100 wants to reopen negotiations, hopefully to win a better contract. Some say this may be possible, as the MTA announced following the earlier negotiations that it had $37 million dollars more than expected in real estate revenues, and another surplus of $14 million due to interest rates.

The tentative contract agreement was reached following a three-day strike just before Christmas by the city’s 34,000 transit workers, the first in 25 years. The strike was sparked by an MTA demand for a two-tier pension system, in which current workers would continue to contribute 2 percent of their salary, while new hires would pay 6 percent.

Local 100 President Roger Toussaint declared that the union would adamantly oppose any two-tier system, saying it would create “two hostile camps within the union.”

The union was seen as scoring a big win when the MTA finally pulled the two-tier plan off the table.

However, many workers expressed dismay over the new health care deduction, 1.5 percent of workers’ earnings, agreed to in the proposed contract.

“The medical contribution was the main problem,” a Brooklyn bus dispatcher told the World after voting against the contract. “Most bus operators work extra shifts, 50–60 hours. The one-and-half percent factored into the overtime adds up. We want a fixed figure. That would be fair.”

But a train operator in Jamaica, Queens, gave a “thumbs-up” sign indicating he supported the contract. “It was the best we could do under the circumstances,” he said.

“There was a lot of false information around the 1.5 percent being spread by some dissident groups and the media,” Charles Jenkins, chair of the TWU’s Line Equipment Section and a membership outreach organizer, told the World.

Jenkins said the 1.5 percent health care payment would have actually paid for a new perk: secured medical coverage from age 55 to 65, “something that our members had asked for.” Most TWU members today have the time on the job to retire before 65, but without guaranteed health coverage “they’re being held hostage because they’re waiting for Medicare to kick in.”

Local 100 spokesperson Dave Katzman noted that in the memorandum of understanding between the TWU and MTA, “you will notice that the 1.5 percent payments for medical benefits are in the same clause that adds full medical benefits for retirees.”

Union leaders and others blame Pataki for sowing confusion about the contract. Days after the agreement was announced, Pataki said he would veto a provision that would have given about half the membership an average of nearly $10,000 in pension payment refunds.

“That hurt and confused our membership,” Jenkins said. “We tried to let our members know that, in the event Pataki didn’t pass legislation, we were able to get reassurance from the MTA saying that it would foot the bill out of its operating expenditure.”

City Councilmember John Liu (D-Queens), who chairs the council’s transportation subcommittee, said in a statement, “Governor Pataki should leave it to the professionals, as he originally claimed to be doing in December, and not inject inflammatory statements into an already tense situation.”

The union says it should have done better in educating members about the contract. Some say that if the leadership had more fully explained the contract to members, it would have passed. “We have to go back to the basics of getting to our members,” Jenkins said. “It’s something that will not happen in weeks or months; it’s going to take a long period of time.”

Jenkins noted that although the health care cost would be painful to members, half the workers saw it as the best deal possible right now. “Part of the education should be that in these times and climate that we’re in, it’s rare that you come away with 100 percent in a contract on every end,” he said.

Union leaders say they would like to see the public press the MTA to negotiate in good faith, and demand the governor stop interfering.

Gabe Falsetta contributed.