TORONTO - Toronto transit users were left dumbfounded and stranded on crowded street corners early Saturday morning as they learned that union workers had called a surprise strike and they no longer had a way to get home.

At about 10:50 p.m. on Friday, the Amalgamated Transit Union sent out a press release announcing that its nearly 9,000 members had voted against a tentative deal agreed to the previous weekend.

Union head Bob Kinnear said the city's transit system would be shut down in just over an hour, and said workers' safety trumped the public's right to advance notice.

"We have assessed the situation and decided that we will not expose our members to the dangers of assaults from angry and irrational members of the public," Kinnear said.

But the transit workers' decision outraged bewildered commuters, who thought the prospect of a strike had come and gone.

Tired late-shift workers desperate to get home and eager partiers on their way to hit the city's entertainment district were equally caught off guard as they waited on street corners for buses and streetcars.

"Wonderful," was the sarcastic reaction of 41-year-old security guard Sean Patenaude, as he waited for a streetcar late Friday night.

"It's going to screw up a heck of a lot of people trying to get to and from their jobs, it's going to cause a lot of economic hardship and a lot of personal hardship," he said.

"It's unforgivable really, you can't hold the entire transit population of the city hostage on a whim and that's what it's starting to feel like."

In the subway system, some of the ticket booths had been abandoned well before midnight and commuters were allowed free access to the trains - if they arrived in time to catch the last one.

One transit employee, who declined to give his name, said he was scared to close his subway station and the prospect of "maybe getting beat up."

"If I was getting out of work and I was trying to get home, who would I take it out on? The person with the blue (TTC) shirt," he said.

He didn't get punched as he chased the final patrons out of the station but more than one disgruntled person swore at him.

"Buddy, when you have the next union meeting, tell the reps they're doing the completely wrong thing," screamed one irate transit user.

"And I hope you get jack, all of you."

"It's completely unreasonable,"added 39-year-old Ray Fong.

"They got their share and I think they're being greedy to be honest... they said they'd give two days notice so they reneged on their (deal)."

Toronto Mayor David Miller said the strike action was "unacceptable" and "unnecessary" and asked Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to introduce back-to-work legislation. McGuinty said he would.

"I informed the mayor that we will be proceeding with back-to-work legislation at the first available opportunity," McGuinty said in a release early Saturday. A spokeswoman for the premier would not elaborate on when the earliest opportunity might be.

Labour ministry mediators have called on both sides to return to negotiations on Saturday afternoon.

The union said it will be meeting Saturday morning to discuss its next steps and wouldn't speak to the media until after that discussion.

In the meantime, Miller urged Torontonians to help their neighbours and walk or bike whenever possible.

The TTC said limited service will remain in place for people who must attend medical appointments for chemotherapy, dialysis and other life-threatening illnesses.

The union's tentative deal had been ratified earlier this week by the Toronto Transit Commission and the union recommended that its members accept the three-year deal, which included annual three per cent wage increases.

But about two-thirds workers that voted on the deal rejected it.

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