NEW YORK -- Subway and bus workers were poised to shut down the nation's largest mass transit system as early as today if they didn't receive a new contract giving them raises and changing work rules they call demeaning.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned New Yorkers Sunday afternoon to plan for a strike and declared, "We are all in this together." Gov. George Pataki rejected demands that he intervene in negotiations.
"There is no person capable of riding in on a white horse with a bag of money to resolve this contract," Pataki said. He and Bloomberg spoke to reporters as the city's emergency command center went into operation in anticipation of a strike.
Union president Roger Toussaint minutes later said all major contract issues still needed to be resolved. But he did not rule out a last-minute settlement with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
"We intend to and still expect that our contract will be resolved before midnight tonight," he said. "We believe the MTA is responsible for pushing transport workers to the brink."
Across the city, businesses prepared by reserving hotel rooms for employees and chartering buses, while residents bought bicycles, organized car pools and flooded city stores to buy holiday gifts and food. Millions pondered how New York would operate if the 34,000 union workers launched a strike in defiance of state law.
"We have made a little progress, however we are still far apart on economic issues," Transport Workers Union secretary-treasurer Ed Watt said Sunday morning.
Negotiations continued through the day between the union and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state agency that runs a subway and bus system that averages 7.2 million rides a day.
Union negotiators have said privately that the talks could continue into Monday without an immediate strike, however Watt said Sunday that extending the 12:01 a.m. deadline was "not under consideration."
About 50 people rallied in support of transit workers outside the midtown hotel where the talks are being held.
A strike could cost the city up to $350 million a day in police overtime costs and lost business and taxes, according to the mayor, and others have warned that a strike would create chaos in the streets, stranding travelers and endangering lives.
Cabs and car services were asked to add drivers and pick up multiple fares if a strike occurs, and other rail lines and ferries planned more service.
Even taxi dispatchers were being called in to drive, said Matt Daus, head of the Taxi & Limousine Commission.
"It's not going to be even a drop in the bucket in terms of solving the problem of 7 million displaced passengers," he said. "We've got to put our head down and do the best that we can."
Union officials said they were as close to striking as they have been since an 11-day walkout in 1980. The workers are seeking raises of 6 percent for each of three years, while the MTA, already proposing a fare increase and facing a billion-dollar deficit, has offered no raise the first year and linked subsequent raises to productivity increases.
Union members are also angry about disciplinary and sick leave policies they find demeaning and excessive. The MTA has offered to reduce the number of citations it issues.
The city and state asked a court last week for injunctions that could subject workers to jail time and heavy fines if they strike. The union has appealed a judge's order that would hold striking workers in contempt.
Many commuters say a strike would just further damage a city still suffering economically from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack.
"The union knows what happened last year. They know the economy was crippled," said Henry Robbins, an express-mail service worker. "It's not the right time."
On the Net:
City contingency plan: http://www.nyc.gov/transitstrike
Transport Workers Union: http://www.twulocal100.org/