Facing two days lost pay for everyday on strike, 37,000 transit workers idled the city's subway cars and buses and erected picket lines as talks broke down between their union and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Tuesday morning. Striking Transit Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 members at the Jackie Gleason Bus Depot in Sunset Park, Brooklyn walked off the job around 3am yesterday morning in response to the last contract offer by MTA officials. The MTA has sought to create a two-tier wage system between new hires and transit veterans, while asking greater health care contributions and an older retirement age.

"They [MTA] just see us as bus drivers, cleaners, and subway conductors," said Elvis Ortiz, a 14-year veteran bus operator. "They don't want us to have a middle class lifestyle."

At the Sunset Park picket line, P.S. 24 elementary students lined wooden horses and screamed “TWU” while striking transit workers filed passed, giving them high-fives like NBA stars. Passing motorists also honked in support, creating a cacophony of chanting children and cars.

“Our goal is to give them a lesson in democracy and what it means to stand up for what you believe in,” said P.S. 24 third grade teacher Evelyn Vargas.

Apart from economic issues, workers on the picket line listed the MTA’s disciplinary system and working conditions as reason for striking. Some bus operators talked about not having enough time to use the bathroom on the job, urinating in glass bottles and cups, and MTA officials making unannounced house visits on sick days. Others said that managers have great leeway in determining and deciding punishment. According to union officials, the MTA issued 15,000 disciplinary actions against TWU members last year.

“Last year they wanted to fire me for using the Livingston Street headquarters’ bathroom,” said bus operator Michelle Irons. Irons claimed that after she came out of the building, MTA officials prevented her from driving her bus because she fell behind schedule. Irons also said that this past fall she had a root canal and MTA representatives made a surprise house visit to make sure she was not abusing the system. “It’s a petty system; they pay you a decent salary and then find a way to take it back.”

At the heart of this strike is the MTA’s request that new transit workers pay out of pocket into their pensions. On the last night of bargaining, the MTA slipped in a proposal to require that new hires pay six percent of their wages towards their pensions for the first 10 years of employment. The savings for the MTA--a paltry $20 million over the next three years. The MTA has an estimated surplus of over a billion dollars and another three billion in voter approved transportation spending. The MTA did drop raising the full pension retirement age from age 55 and 25 years of service, to age 62 and 30 years of service. The MTA has argued because life expectancy has increased that pensions should begin later in life. However, the life expectancy of African-American men, who comprise a significant percent of TWU members, is 69 years according to the Centers for Disease Control.

While transit workers see this strike as a fight for dignity and respect, public officials see the TWU rank and file as lawbreakers. The strike has effectively shut the way business is run in the city, taking an estimated $400 million away from the economy each day. Both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor George Pataki have used harsh language that many see as coded race baiting. The mayor has called TWU President Roger Toussaint “thuggish” and plays up the illegal (and thus criminal) aspect of the strike. The strike will be won or lost by the rank and file’s resolve, pressure on Bloomberg and Pataki from the retail industry and TWU’s ability to galvanize support by everyday New Yorkers. If the Sunset Park rally was any indication, this strike has support and will continue to exact a toll on the city’s economy and provoke even more vitriolic words from the billionaire mayor.