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Private bus lines vote to strike


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City Sets Talks After Strike Is Approved at 2 Private Bus Lines

By SEWELL CHAN December 21, 2004

New York City's top labor negotiator has scheduled a meeting for today with union leaders at two bus lines that serve 70,000 riders in Queens and Brooklyn after their members authorized a strike over wages and job security.

Officials at Locals 1179 and 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents drivers, mechanics and other workers at Green Bus Lines and the Command Bus Company, said late yesterday that a walkout could occur as early as this morning.

The city's Office of Emergency Management braced for a strike that could inconvenience riders across central and southern Queens and eastern Brooklyn. Officials have arranged for licensed commuter vans, also known as dollar vans, to operate limited service along the affected routes if a strike occurs.

However, city officials said they believed that any work action would be put off pending a meeting between the unions and the city's commissioner of labor relations, James F. Hanley, which is scheduled for this afternoon.

The threat of a strike is the latest move in a drawn-out conflict over the city's plans to have the Metropolitan Transportation Authority take over seven private bus companies that were not subsumed into the transit network when the authority was created in 1965. The oldest of the companies traces its roots to a horse-drawn streetcar service established in Astoria, Queens, in the 1860's.

This year, the companies will receive $150 million in subsidies from the city and $50 million from the state, according to the city's Department of Transportation, which oversees the subsidies.

On Dec. 8, the city announced an agreement to take over one of the seven companies, Liberty Lines Express. Deadlines for the takeover of the other companies have been repeatedly missed.

The city has extended the operating authority for four of the companies, including Green Bus Lines and Command Bus, through April 30. Meanwhile, the authority has created a subsidiary to run the lines and has named its former chief operating officer, Thomas J. Savage, president of the new M.T.A. Bus Company.

Mindful of a cold front that has sent temperatures plummeting, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said a strike by the unions would be irresponsible.

"I trust that they won't; I hope they won't," Mr. Bloomberg said at a news conference in Harlem. "This is not the time of the year, and certainly not in the kind of weather, where you want to put people at risk not being able to get to work or having to struggle to do so."

However, the mayor also directed some of his ire at the bus company owners, who he said had undue political influence. "The city's been basically guaranteeing them profits, and that just has finally come to an end," Mr. Bloomberg said.

The city's negotiations with the owners and the unions have dragged on for months. The talks have focused on pension liabilities, the fate of nonunion employees and the proper price for physical assets, like bus depots, as well as intangible assets.

"It is complex," Mr. Bloomberg said of the takeover process. "We're trying to be fair with the owners as much as we possibly can. We're not going to let anybody threaten a strike and force us to give away the public's money when it doesn't need to be."

Officials of the two unions said they had worked without a contract since December 2002 and been left out of the takeover negotiations. Workers at three private bus companies struck for three weeks in June and July 2002.

"What's going to happen to our membership, our pension, our wages, our benefits?" asked Thomas DeMarinis, the financial secretary of Local 1179, which represents about 600 workers at Green Bus Lines.

Michael Cordiello, the recording secretary of Local 1181, which represents 200 workers at Command Bus, said they were exasperated by uncertainty. "We're not opposed to an M.T.A. takeover," Mr. Cordiello said. "We just want protections."

A spokesman for the chairman of four of the companies - Command Bus, Green Bus Lines, Jamaica Buses and Triboro Coach - said the subsidy system had not worked well for either the riders or the workers.

"We were hamstrung for years by lack of equipment and the city's lack of infrastructure," said the spokesman, Jamie Van Bramer. "We're as frustrated as the drivers."

From The New York Times

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