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Transit strike leaves New Yorkers out in cold

Mediator meets with union, transportation authority officials

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Millions of New Yorkers trekked to and from work Wednesday in below-freezing temperatures as the union behind the two-day-old transit strike returned to court to fight $1 million-a-day fines.

Meanwhile, the leader of the union's international arm urged all members to end the strike and "report to work."

On Tuesday, state Supreme Court Justice Theodore Jones found the Transport Workers Union in contempt for ignoring two injunctions barring its workers from striking. (Full story)

New York's Taylor Law forbids transit workers from striking, and the city and state pressed the judge to impose hefty penalties.

Jones has yet to rule on whether a second union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, also will be fined for participating in the strike.

Another issue awaiting the judge's ruling is whether the executive officers of the unions leading the strike -- including Roger Toussaint, head of Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union -- could each be fined up to $1,000 for urging members to strike.

While traversing the Brooklyn Bridge early Wednesday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged members to "go back to the bargaining table and negotiate the way every other union has negotiated in this city, without a strike."

"The city's not going to tolerate it," he added.

Bloomberg has said that the economic consequences of the strike, which coincides with the height of holiday shopping and tourist season, range "from severe to devastating, depending on the business." (Find out how tourists are coping)

City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo said employees on strike will lose three days of pay for every day they are not at work, instead of the penalty of a two-day pay loss imposed by the city.

Signs of hope

Transport Workers Union International President Michael O'Brien issued a statement on the union's Web site urging all members of Local 100 to stop the strike, as ordered by the New York Supreme Court.

O'Brien added that his "refusal to sanction this strike" should not be construed as a lessening of "my resolve to secure the best possible contract for this membership."

A mediator was to meet separately with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and union officials Wednesday to determine if negotiations are at an impasse, said Jim Edgar, a spokesman for the state Public Employment Relations Board, which is assigned to mediate the talks.

If the mediator determines talks have stalled, a three-member panel would be created, with each side choosing one arbitrator and both sides agreeing on the third member. The panel would investigate the breakdown of the talks and impose a contract on both parties in an effort to spur them toward an agreement.

The union's 33,000 members are seeking raises, improved health plans and a stronger pension fund, which faces a $1 billion shortfall, according to its leaders.

Toussaint said Wednesday that he wants the pension issue taken off the table so talks with the MTA can resume.

Under an MTA proposal, new employees would contribute 6 percent of their salaries to pension funds, instead of the current 2 percent. The MTA withdrew a proposal to increase the retirement age for new hires from 55 to 62

"We believe that the pension demands put forth by the MTA are illegal and burden on the negotiations," he said, adding that the union opposes arbitration to end the strike.

An MTA spokesman told CNN that the state Public Employment Relations Board, in its role as mediator, denied a union request Tuesday to remove the pension issue.

A major sticking point leading up to the strike was a transit authority offer that called for new hires to pay more than current employees for health care.

Toussaint said the offer "guarantees the next generation of transit workers will be worse off than this generation."

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Peter Kalikow said the deal would not cut health care or pensions for any employee "by one penny."

Patience wearing thin

The strike on the nation's largest public transportation system has forced millions of people to adopt creative ways of getting around -- or simply abandon plans altogether. (Read the latest commuters' e-mails)

Wednesday's cover of the New York Post captured a popular sentiment: "You Rats."

For a second day, traffic clogged all of Manhattan's inbound bridges and tunnels despite a city mandate that cars entering Manhattan and traveling below 96th Street carry no fewer than four people. Also, schools started two hours late for a second day.

The transit strike is the first in the city since 1980. (A map for the transit strike)

CNN's Ronni Berke, Tom DiDonato, Brian Vitagliano and Tom Ziegler contributed to this report.

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