It is hard to overstate just how dependent New Yorkers are on the city's subway system. In 2014, the subways saw about 5.5 million riders per day—a huge number considering that New York City is home to an estimated 8.5 million people. Every year, about 1.75 billion people ride the city subways.
And unlike in most other cities, the subways never close. They’re the constant, noisy engine of the city, where most of us spend hours each week reading and listening to music and playing Candy Crush, and sometimes napping or crying or watching buskers perform. Members of the city’s homeless population sleep on the trains on cold nights; some live underground throughout the year.
So when the subways stop, it’s a big deal. And 10 years ago this week, a bitter battle between the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Transit Workers Union shut the whole system down from December 20 through December 22, bringing that engine to a shrieking halt. It could happen again.
When the transit strike—the third in MTA history—happened, I was a not-very-politically-aware teenager. But I stayed up late watching NY1 to see if the TWU and the MTA had reached a deal. I fell asleep before the 3 a.m. decision. In the morning, I turned the TV back on: There was no agreement, the strike was on, and traffic reporters were talking about major gridlock north of 96th street. I lived north of 96th street, and a look out the window confirmed that there was, indeed, major gridlock, the likes of which you'd only see on highways during rush hour. I felt giddy. It was like a manufactured snow day, like city officials had opted in for days of chaos, for a shift in the city’s essential core. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was excited for it.
To be clear, the strike was a best case scenario for me. I was in high school. I didn’t have to go to work, I didn’t have to make my own money. We lived blocks away from my parent’s flower shop, and I was well within walking distance to my school. My parents had parked our car below 96th street, so they were able to make flower deliveries without worrying about the temporary HOV rules, which took effect north of that street. And we had a car, which is unusual for New Yorkers —by one 2012 estimate, just 43.5% of New York City households owned cars, a lower share than in any other American city.
To give teachers time to commute into the city, my school truncated our hours. Some of my final exams were postponed. My outer-borough friends slept at my house for the duration of the strike. Those days felt magical: A long, mid-week sleepover right before Christmas and New Year’s, when the city is already shining in its glitzy holiday glory.
My friends remember those days similarly. When I asked on Facebook how they recall the strike, one told me she remembers riding a Razor scooter to school. Another said he remembers “walking to school every day—and it was particularly cold that winter.” He added, “I definitely recall some snow. School was a madhouse because half of the teachers couldn't even get there.”
My colleague Dodai Stewart told me that after spending the night at a friend’s in Brooklyn, she woke up on the morning of the strike and had to figure out how to get home, in Manhattan, or to work, in New Jersey. Her friend bailed her out. “I called in ‘strike’ and he drove me across the [Williamsburg] bridge and we went to brunch, which, on a weekday, felt very decadent.”
Reading the New York Times description of how New Yorkers coped with the strike, you’d think the city was suffering a weirdly quaint apocalypse:
Throughout the day, mass confusion reigned at many arteries leading into the city, where police halted all vehicles with fewer than four occupants. North of 96th Street on the Upper West Side, cars were backed up for miles as drivers begged strangers to hop into their cars… At Lord & Taylor, the famed Midtown department store, executives walked the sales floor, trying to sell the gloves and sweater sets themselves.
American Red Cross staffers gave hot drinks and cookies to freezing commuters, heightening the end times/holiday feel:
The strike made executives into store clerks, strangers into carpooling buddies. The Times commented, “People who would otherwise have little contact with one another–postal workers, investment bankers, home health aides, lawyers–were brought together, jury-duty style, in shared cars.”
But the strike caused real strife. Forbes estimated that the strike would cost New York City around $420 million per day. People said they walked
for hours in the bitter cold to get to work. Some saw their commute times nearly quadruple in length. Hospital clerk Sandra Picon told the Philadelphia Inquirer that she was “disgusted,” adding that the TWU “used New York people as a pawn.”
The words used by the city against the striking workers, and vice versa, were much uglier.
Writing for the Solidarity (a self-described socialist organization) website, TWU's Steve Downs explained what the union was fighting for:
Officially, the strike was called because the transit authority (MTA) insisted on raising the percentage of their wage future workers would pay for their pensions… Pointing to the gutting of pension plans by employers throughout the economy and the shifting of their costs from management onto workers, Local 100 President Roger Toussaint made it clear that he was not going to accept such a deal. In his words, he was not going to "give up the unborn."
In addition to the question of how pensions plans would affect transit worker wages was one of when those transit workers should be able to retire. At the time, the retirement age was 55: The MTA wanted to tack on seven years to that number, and the union wanted to remove five for senior members. The TWU also wanted a higher wage hike, and better access to benefits in general.
But Downs emphasized that the strike happened for reasons less tangible than contract negotiations:
It was clear on the picket lines that Toussaint's stated reason for the strike was not one that resonated strongly with most strikers… For most pickets, the strike was about paying the MTA back for years of petty harassment. It was about standing against what was seen as racially motivated disrespect and wages and benefits lower than those on the commuter railroads â€” where the workforce and riders were predominantly white. It was about workers who were tired of being pushed around pushing back.
In a 2012 interview with New York magazine, Touissant, who is black, said he also saw traces of racism in how the city and the MTA treats transit workers. Touissant said he doubted then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would have used words like "thuggish" to describe the behavior of union leadership if he were white.
And, of course, there was the underlying class tensions. Part of what stoked the transit workers' desire to fight the MTA was, said Touissant, was "the irony of a billionaire [Bloomberg] presenting himself as the one understanding the working poor.”
The union’s first strike deadline was December 16, 2005. CNN reported on the Dec. 15 that “Members of the union and the MTA have been deadlocked in negotiations for several days. The TWU has threatened to strike when their contract expires at midnight Thursday if their demands are not met.”
That week, Bloomberg warned the union that there would be dire consequences to the strike. "It would do far worse than inconvenience the 8.1 million city residents and nearly one million suburban commuters. Emergency vehicles may get stuck in traffic, and people will have difficulty getting to hospitals," Bloomberg warned.
When Roger Toussaint, the union chief, walked away, his members were being offered a chance to continue to retire with full pensions at age 55. New hires would have to pay into that pension, but workers would continue to pay nothing toward their health benefits. That's a deal that many riders, including those who struggle to pay the $2 fare, would gladly take. The authority also made other concessions, including a better wage offer, that could be seen as generous, considering that its finances will be awash in red ink for foreseeable years and it cannot just let fares skyrocket to pay for any deal it cuts for its workers.
"The New Yorkers who took to the streets yesterday," wrote the members of the editorial board, "deserved better than the explanation they got from leaders of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union."
The stakes were high for the union, too. CNN explained:
On Tuesday, the city sued the TWU for damages it will incur if the strike takes place. The New York State Supreme Court granted an injunction Tuesday prohibiting transit workers from striking, arguing that a mass transit shutdown would cause irreparable harm to the city. State Supreme Court Judge Theodore Jones issued the ruling after a hearing in which an attorney representing New York state argued that a strike of more than 33,000 transit workers would cripple the city.
The deadline came and went, and there was no strike. Another was set for Dec. 20.
And tensions were high. Union members were especially upset because the MTA was unwilling to heed their demands, despite a $1.18 billion surplus in 2005. So when the decision was made to strike, at 3 a.m. on Dec. 2, the city and the unions were both prepared and surprised.
John Samuelsen, who currently serves as president of Transport Workers Union Local 100 (which represent's NYC transit workers) was on the executive board meeting the night the union finally decided to strike.
“I’d seen this type of scenario unfold many times,” he told me over the phone. At the time, Samuelsen said, he was chair of the union’s track division. He'd been with the union for 12 years and negotiations had always ended with a settlement. “The fact that the trigger was pulled was a pretty surreal thing.”
The announcement was made by Roger Touissant, then president of the TWU Local 100.
“New Yorkers,” Touissant said:
This is a fight over whether hard work will be rewarded with a decent retirement. This is a fight over the erosion or the eventual elimination of health benefit coverage for working people in New York. This is a fight over dignity and respect on the job, a concept that is very alien to the MTA. Transit workers are tired of being underappreciated and disrespected.
After that, things happened quickly. “I took my crew and began organizing picket lines,” Samuelsen told me. “There had been no methodical planning of the organizing of the strike captains and picket lines in the lead up to the strike. The union itself was not prepared to effectuate the strike.” But morale was strong, he said, and “rank and file members held the picket lines extremely well.” The overwhelming feeling, he told me, was of pride. The strike “was the ultimate act of justice against an employer who had mistreated people for a long time,” Samuelsen said, explaining that workers “struck to win a better contract, struck to stick it to a boss who had long abused transit workers.”
Bloomberg and the MTA didn’t see it that way. "Make no mistake, these are bullying tactics and we will not accept them," MTA chairman Peter Kalikow said at the time. He described the strike as "a slap in the face of all MTA customers and all New Yorkers." Bloomberg also came hard at the TWU. The strike, he said, “is a cowardly attempt by Roger Toussaint and the TWU to bring the city to its knees to create leverage for their own bargaining position. We cannot give the TWU the satisfaction of causing the havoc they desperately seek to create."
After days of mediation, the strike was called off. And the contract was finally negotiated on December 28, 2005.
In most ways, the 2005 strike failed. It was an illegal measure—New York State law prohibits a walkout by transit workers—and ultimately, the TWU was fined $2.5 million. Touissant was sentenced to 10 days in jail for allowing the strike to happen. Many transit workers were unhappy with the deal that was finally reached, and saw its adoption as a betrayal of all they'd done. "Some," wrote Downs, "looking at the fines and the givebacks, question the wisdom of fighting back at all." Though the union ensured workers wouldn't have to pay more toward their pensions, other concessions were made. The Times reported:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the transit workers' union announced a settlement yesterday in which the authority abandoned its demand for concessions on pensions and the union agreed to have all workers pay a portion of their health insurance premiums… The agreement calls for transit workers to pay 1.5 percent of their wages toward the premiums, cutting into the raises they receive. That comes on top of the fines of slightly more than $1,000 that most transit workers face for participating in last week's illegal transit strike.
Fallout from the strike meant that in more recent negotiations, a strike deadline has been off the table. In 2008, WNYC noted that Touissant promised in an affidavit that union workers won’t strike again.
But Samuelsen said that another strike is always possible. “There are guarantees going forward that we will set strike deadlines in contract negotations in the future,” he told me. “Whether or not that leads to a strike in a year or ten years, that remains to be seen.”
The next contract negotiation will be in January 2017. So get ready.
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.