By and  on December 13, 2005

NEW YORK — Retailers in the largest U.S. city are nervously bracing for a possible strike at 12:01 a.m. Friday by transit workers that would halt subway and bus service for as many as 7 million riders a day during the peak of holiday shopping.

Stores are working on contingency plans to get personnel to work, but there is little that merchants can do to assist shoppers suddenly without mass transit in a city that relies heavily on it. Internet sales and retailers' mall-based stores could provide some alternatives.

"It would have an enormous impact on the business," said Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale's, which has its flagship on 59th Street — directly over a subway station. "We are working on various plans, in case it happens."

There has not been a subway and bus strike since 1980, and New York's Taylor law prohibits walkouts by public employees, but the bargaining is particularly tough this time around because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that oversees mass transit in the region, is demanding concessions on pensions and health benefits. Transit workers are seeking 8 percent pay increases over the next three years. The MTA has proposed a 3 percent boost for the first year and 2 percent the second.

The 33,700-member Transport Workers Union Local 100 has voted to authorize a strike. Suburban rail lines and buses would not be affected.

Should workers walk off the job Friday they would potentially incur millions of dollars in fines for the union and loss of two days' pay each day workers strike. The final rush to Christmas is a critical period when stores usually have their strongest sales.

Typically, stores try to mobilize executives to help staff the selling floors, find places for those living outside Manhattan to stay overnight and organize car pools or vans.

Executives at Macy's Herald Square were working on strike preparations on Monday. "We're still trying to figure a couple of things out," a spokeswoman said. "At the same time, a lot of people rely on mass transit in addition to workers. Our customers are going to be affected, as well. Is that going to change where they shop and are they going to go to malls? There may be a shift there. If the person wants to shop at Herald Square but can't get there, they're going to wind up going to their Queens Center store.""We've planned it so far in advance that we're hoping for business as usual," said a spokeswoman at H&M. "We're setting up some arrangements and trying to work out the staffing. It's hard to speculate about what would happen with the customers."

One of the busiest New York City transit hubs is 34th Street, which is also a major shopping thoroughfare, with Macy's, Victoria's Secret, Gap, H&M, Zara, Banana Republic, American Eagle Outfitters and Forever 21, among others.

"We're very dependent on transit on 34th Street and all of New York City," said Lisa Rosenthal, associate director of the 34th Street Partnership, a business-improvement district unit. "A transit strike would certainly be an inconvenience ... We hope the strike can be averted."

Not everyone was thinking ahead. A spokeswoman for J. Crew said, "Transit strike? We haven't even talked about it — something people are in denial about. We'll probably talk about it some time tomorrow once we get more information. New Yorkers are so resilient, they'll find a way to get out. The beauty is, we also have our Web site."

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