Commuters trek across the Brooklyn Bridge on the third day of the strike. Many New Yorkers were forced to find alternative ways to get to and from work.

In the early morning hours of December 20, 2005 in New York City, after marathon contract negotiations, the Transportation Workers Union (TWU) and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) were at an impasse to agreeing on wages and benefits.  The TWU decided enough was enough. It was time to make good on their threats to walk out from their positions as subway conductors, bus drivers, track maintenance workers, and other transit-related posts. They began what would become a three-day strike, leaving millions of commuters to fend for themselves seeking alternative methods for getting to work. New Yorkers bundled up and walked bridges, rode bikes and hitched cabs to get where they needed to be.

As could be expected, roadways were much more crowded than usual, with commutes taking upward of three hours for what was usually a 30-minute drive. Cab drivers and bicycle rickshaws saw a large increase in fares throughout the city. The Long Island Railroad (LIRR) and Metro North commuter rail lines were swamped with riders hoping to get into the city. News images showed lines in Jamaica, Queens stretching back and forth for blocks just to get a seat on the LIRR into Penn Station.

To make this photo essay, I took to the streets with my trusty bike and multiple layers of Gore-Tex to keep the cold out and the warm in. Beginning in Fort Greene, Brooklyn at 5:00 a.m., I rode the bridges, visited transportation hubs, and went to bus depots and subway stops to photograph the city under what became known as the 2005 New York Transit Strike. I first pedaled to the Manhattan Bridge, then over into Chinatown and downtown to the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge.  

Locking my bike, I walked up onto the Brooklyn Bridge. After photographing morning commuters for a couple of hours on the bridge, I got back on my bike and made my way up through Manhattan, stopping to shoot when something moved me. I ended up at the 57th St. Bus Depot and spent a short while talking to TWU strikers and making pictures as they picketed. Eventually, at the end of the day, I made my way to Penn Station to photograph the crowds commuting home.

Ever since September 11, 2001, New Yorkers have had an uncanny ability to remain calm under pressure. The transit strike was no different. For the most part, people did what they had to do under the circumstances and didn’t really complain too much about it. In fact, the only raised voices I heard throughout the entire strike came from commuters at Penn Station, as they were squished like cattle through police barricaded lines into narrow hallways.

I couldn’t help but think about the Blackout of 2003 when people had to improvise after 21 power plants in the Northeast and Midwest shut down in a span of three minutes, knocking out power for all of New York City.
People joined together to help those in need. Community members directed traffic. Stranded commuters stayed at friend’s houses in the city. People with cars gave rides home to strangers in need. And, during the transit strike, even with traffic backed up throughout the city, long lines, and long walks, everyone generally remained calm and worked together.

For the most part, New Yorkers empathized with the plight of the TWU workers, agreeing that their jobs were not the easiest and they deserved a fair contract. But as the strike went on, more and more people became frustrated. A number of my teacher friends, city workers who are also without a contract, grumbled that TWU workers generally make more money then they do. One teacher went on to complain that a TWU worker had never been nice to her when she needed help in the subway system, and that maybe the teachers should be the ones taking to the streets.

If the strike had gone on for more than three days, or the weather had been bad for the commuters, I have a feeling things would have made a turn for the worse. With the nice weather, albeit cold, people were able to get to work without extreme hassle and only had to do so for a short period.

All in all, the sentiment now is generally one of confusion. After lengthy negotiations with the MTA during the strike, the TWU agreed to go back to work after representatives reached agreement on a contract that met most of their demands. Unfortunately, things did not pan out as the negotiators hoped. As of the writing of this article, in a union-wide vote, the TWU rejected the contract worked out with the MTA.  Now, once again the TWU is without a contract. The future remains uncertain, and we are led to ask the question:  was the strike even necessary?

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