For three days, their transit strike had paralyzed America's greatest city, and now it was time to go back to work.

The 33,700 members of Transport Workers Union Local 100 were exhausted. They had incurred the wrath of millions of transit riders, of Mayor Bloomberg, of Gov. Pataki, of the city's entire business establishment, even of their own parent union in Washington. For violating the Taylor Law, the local and each individual striker still face huge fines.

Still, many union members returned to work with their heads held high. They are convinced that their walkout was necessary, that their fight was a needed jolt to the country's weakened labor movement.

Thankfully, both TWU President Roger Toussaint and MTA Chairman Peter Kalikow stepped back from the abyss of a long strike, one that would have been disastrous for both the union and our city.

In the end, both chose negotiations over a labor war.

Some will claim the union got nothing from the strike. They will say Toussaint scurried to send his members back to work just before his organization collapsed under a mountain of fines and jail sentences for top leaders.

Those who say such things know very little about unions. And they know even less about Roger Toussaint.

All through Wednesday, state mediators conducted intense talks with union leaders and MTA officials. That mediation - a form of shuttle diplomacy - went on all night, and by early yesterday morning, the framework of a possible solution was already taking shape.

Bargaining, in effect, had gone on even though Pataki and Bloomberg had demanded no new talks until the strikers went back to work.

Those talks went on because Kalikow is a practical man. Kalikow knew he couldn't get the trains and buses running unless he reached an agreement with the union. And every hour those trains and buses sat idle, furious commuters were losing patience, and businesses in this city that desperately depend on holiday shopping were hemorrhaging millions of dollars - far more than the amount under dispute with the union.

The mediators pointed in a press conference to the key ingredient in a possible settlement: The MTA would abandon its demand for a less-generous pension plan for new workers if the union agreed to have its members pay some portion of their health insurance.

This was not just a hint.

Sources tell me the language of such a settlement is already being drawn up, that final negotiations could take only a few days.

"Kalikow's independence [from Pataki] and Roger's flexibility allowed these negotiations to go forward," said Assemblyman Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester), chairman of the Assembly committee that oversees the MTA.

There was one issue, however, on which Kalikow wasn't willing to budge. MTA officials, Pataki and Bloomberg refused to consider a deal that would mitigate Taylor Law fines against the union or individual strikers.

But some of Toussaint's advisers are urging him to aggressively challenge the fines in the courts by demanding jury trials for every union member and seeking to subpoena MTA records.

Bloomberg, whose strident verbal attacks on the union in the past week did little to help this conflict, once again showed how tone-deaf he is when it comes to transit workers.

Bloomberg offered his prayers - and appropriately so - for an off-duty firefighter who was seriously injured by a bus while riding a bicycle to work yesterday.

Yet the mayor neglected to mention the death of a transit car cleaner and TWU member who crossed the picket lines yesterday to report to work and suffered an asthma attack about 9:30 a.m. while working at the Hoyt-Schermerhorn station in Brooklyn.

For better or worse, the past three days have reminded each of us how important the members of the TWU are to this city's life. If we have the finest police and firefighters in the world, we also have the finest transit workers.

Let the healing begin.