Union votes to end New York transit walkout
Official says workers to return 'right away'; talks continue
Union President Roger Toussaint, left, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday the strike is over.
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NEW YORK (CNN) -- The executive board of the union representing more than 30,000 New York transit employees voted Thursday to return to work while contract negotiations continue with the Metropolitan Transit Authority.
The vote was 36-5, with two abstentions, two union board members said.
"They go back right away," said Transport Workers Union President Roger Toussaint, who was greeted with chants of "T-W-U" as he approached the podium outside union headquarters. He added only that more information would come "in the next several days."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he expected workers to return to work for their next shifts -- at 4 p.m. Thursday -- but that it could take between 10 and 18 hours to get the system up to full capacity.
"It can't be turned on or off with the flip of a switch," he said. (Watch as the end of the strike is announced -- 1:26)
The transit workers went on strike early Tuesday, shutting down the nation's largest public transportation system and creating hardships for more than 7 million commuters. The transit strike is the first in the city since 1980. (A map for the transit strike)
Richard Curreri, director of conciliation service of the state Public Employment Relations Board, said the mediators had met separately over the past 48 hours with the union leadership and representatives of the MTA. He described the talks as "fruitful."
"We requested the leadership of the TWU to take the action necessary to direct its membership to immediately return to work, and they have agreed to take such actions," he said.
One key issue -- the union's pension plan -- continues to be a sticking point. Earlier, Toussaint had said taking the plan off the table would "go a long way" toward getting the union to return to talks and that "the pension demands put forth by the MTA are illegal and burden the negotiations."
But the mediator said that the transit authority had agreed to look at the possibility of finding cost cuts in the health care arena.
The disagreements between the MTA and TWU created "emotionally charged" talks, Curreri said, but the bitter feelings between the two sides had dissipated over the course of the day.
"At this point in time, I'm not aware of any formal negotiations that have been scheduled, but we anticipate that they will be in short order," the mediator said.
Union members are seeking raises, improved health plans and a stronger pension fund, which faces a $1 billion shortfall, according to its leaders.
Under an MTA proposal, new employees would contribute 6 percent of their salaries to their pension funds, instead of the current 2 percent. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority withdrew a proposal to increase the retirement age from 55 to 62.
On Tuesday, the Public Employment Relations Board, acting as a mediator, denied a union request to remove the pension issue, said an MTA spokesman.
The strike violates New York's Taylor Law, which forbids public employees to walk off the job, but Toussaint argued, "We have pointed out that there is a higher calling than the law, and that's justice and equality."
Bloomberg accused the union of "claiming to be the champions of working families," while the "illegal actions they are taking are costing New Yorkers their livelihoods." (Watch Bloomberg praise "brave" New Yorkers and slam strike leaders -- 5:03)
Negotiators reported some progress on wage negotiations before talks collapsed early Tuesday. An authority offer Monday night, rejected by the union, included a three-year contract with wage increases of up to 4 percent a year.
The strike forced millions of people to adopt creative ways of getting around -- or simply abandon plans altogether. Even cabdrivers complained that despite the higher fares they can charge, they spend much of their time stuck in traffic jams throughout the city. (Read the latest commuters' e-mails)
Wednesday's cover of the New York Post captured a popular sentiment: "You Rats."
The mayor 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)
The city looked to lose another $300 million in revenues Thursday, bringing the total loss for the strike to $1 billion, according to Jeff Simmons, spokesman for city Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr.
CNN's Ronni Berke, Katy Byron, Tom DiDonato and Brian Vitagliano contributed to this report.
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