The settlement followed daylong negotiations between transit workers and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in a midtown Manhattan hotel.
It also came on the heels of a pair of temporary restraining orders blocking the strike, including one with such severe fines it could have bankrupted the union.
Union leaders and transit officials announced the settlement just after 2 a.m., two hours after 33,000 subway and bus workers' contract lapsed at 12:01 a.m. Subways and buses never stopped running.
"I believe it is a fair and just contract and proves that collective bargaining works when people are honestly willing to bargain in good faith," said union president Willie James.
Bitterness seemed to fade as MTA chairman Virgil Conway praised James' cooperation.
"I would say that this was only possible through the efforts of the president of this union, and I think not only his members but everybody in this city owes him a great debt of gratitude," Conway said.
Wages were the biggest sticking point in talks, with the union initially demanding more than double the MTA's offer of a 10 percent wage hike over four years.
The deal has to be ratified by the union's contract policy committee, executive board and membership. James emerged Wednesday morning from a two-hour executive committee vote on the tentative agreement and announced: "We have a contract."
The vote was 25-20 with one abstention to approve the three-year pact that gives workers a 5 percent raise in the first year, 3 percent in the second year and 4 percent in the final year. It also reduces by 2 percent the amount the workers pay into their pensions.
Union members had been divided over whether to strike, with some challenging James' leadership and calling for stronger action. Chris Paulette, a track worker who had been protesting at union headquarters, was unhappy with the proposed contract.
"It's no darn good," he said. "They sat for six hours and got nothing accomplished. I'm angry. I've got another 25 years to go. I thought this might be a momentous occasion, but it's not. "
A strike could have crippled New York, stranding commuters and snarling traffic. City officials had prepared a contingency plan that included ferries on the Hudson and East rivers, thousands of vans and a ban on cars with fewer than three passengers in parts of Manhattan.
The resolution capped a roller-coaster day of non-stop negotiations, angry rhetoric and courtroom activity between the MTA, Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union and Giuliani's office.
Piling on the pressure, twin restraining orders -- one boasting withering fines that started at $1 million per day -- were slapped on the city's transit nion Tuesday to block a strike.
At an evening meeting of union workers, a voice vote showed overwhelming support for a strike despite the sanctions. Angry unionists also marched thirty blocks through Manhattan to voice their displeasure at the union headquarters, chanting anti-Giuliani epithets.
Local 100 of the Transport Workers Union would have faced fines of $1 million a day, with that figure doubling daily, if it violated the city's restraining order.
Striking workers could also have been fined $25,000 each on the first day of a strike, with that penalty also doubling each day thereafter -- a staggering fine for workers who earn an average $39,000 a year.
In 1980, an 11-day transit strike was found to be in violation of a law that bars strikes by public employees. The union was slapped with $1.25 million in fines, all but wiping out its treasury.
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