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N.Y. transit talks on slow track

New Yorkers and commuters into the city, given high marks by Mayor Edward Koch on their ingenuity in coping with a transit strike that began April 1, apparently will be required to exercise that resourcefulness for an indefinite period.

The best-informed sources on the bus and subway workers strike -- already hurting business in the Big Apple -- say it is likely to be a long one.

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* Richard Ravitch, chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the state agency that runs what is the nation's largest mass transportation system, forecasts a strike of several weeks.

* Militant unionists within the 31,000-member Transport Workers Union (TWU) of Greater New York, the predominant union involved, are demanding that their negotiators not settle for anything less than a 9.5 percent-a-year wage increase , which Mr. Ravitch and other MTA board members say is totally unacceptable. Reportedly, just before the strike began, Mr. Ravitch was all set to offer an 8 percent-a-year wage increase but stopped short of making the offer. Publicly he had stated that 6 percent was his final offer.

* Efforts to hammer out a wage settlement are being thwarted by the Carter administration's proposed "inflation fighting" cutbacks in mass transit aid for New York. Nationally, the administration has proposed cutting $80 million from its mass transit "urban initiatives" program, which the city has relied on heavily to shore up its aging subway system.

The amount of money New York receives from Washington has at least an indirect effect on what the MTA can afford in wage settlements.

* New York State, which funds the MTA, faces a budget crunch itself and cannot possibly meet the union's wage demands even if it wants to, financial analysts say. Moody's Investment Service, which rates the state's short-term bonds, stated March 31 that it would refuse to rate them until it knew what the fiscal 1981 state budget would look like. But local election-year politics have thrown this matter into doubt, and it could be weeks before Gov. Hugh Carey and legislative leaders agree on a budget.

* As many close political observers see it, Mayor Koch, who has not taken an active role in negotiations with the TWU, has much to gain from waiting for the union to settle for less at a later date -- when union members, too, will have begun to feel the economic effects of the strike. The city's municipal unions will almost automatically seek, when their contracts are up June 30, whatever the transit union gets as a settlement.

* The MTA is expected, in May, to raise the mass transit fare from 10 to 50 percent higher than the current level of 50 cents. But May is almost a whole month away, and MTA officials state emphatically they won't discuss a fare increase until the union contract is settled. Even if they do break with this stated policy, as some observers think they might, an increase of 50 percent would only begin to cover the MTA's current estimated operating deficit of $300 million, excluding wage increases.

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Negotiators for the MTA and the TWU were not expected to get down to grappling with the issues until later this week.

A three-member mediation panel has been appointed to recommend contract terms , but its members were reported to be sharply divided over what to recommend. The panel's first recommendation is not expected until after the Easter holiday.

One goad to early settlement by the union could be the big fines that the courts are expected to impose on members for violating the state law forbidding public employees to strike. In 1966, during the city's last transit strike, daily fines totaling $322,000 were levied. But these were waived by the city as a key element of the final contract agreement.

Union leaders are confident that an eventual agreement with the MTA will contain some sort of amnesty for fines accrued, no matter how long the strike lasts.


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