Striking first blow to riders
BY RAY SÁNCHEZ
December 19, 2005, 12:51 AM EST
Workers at two private bus companies in Queens walked off the job early this morning, with no progress reported in tense contract negotiations between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the transit workers' union.
At 12:01 a.m. today, more than 700 workers at Triboro Coach Corp. and Jamaica Bus went on strike. A message on TWU Local 100's website said, "Strike Alert: No Buses Monday … We would not strike if there was any other alternative."
At Triboro Coach, dispatcher Barbara Ralph said buses began returning to the depot shortly after midnight and pickets starting forming outside. At 12:09 a.m., she said, "We have 10 buses out finishing their routes."
"We have to support a strike for now," said Ralph, who has been with Triboro for 21 years.
At Jamaica, dispatcher McKenzie Miller also reported that only seven or eight were out finishing trip before returning to the depot to commence the strike. "Nobody likes to be out," he said.
Before the walkout deadline, the MTA's top labor negotiator reported no progress in contract talks with transit workers and warned employees at two private bus companies serving Queens to do "some serious thinking" before a planned walkout this morning.
Gary Dellaverson, in a 10:30 p.m. news conference, said that talks with the Transport Workers Local 100 would resume sometime today. But, Dellaverson said: "The MTA is quite concerned that we are now down to the last day before the union-imposed deadline."
The two sides resumed negotiations about 3:45 p.m. yesterday at the Grand Hyatt hotel in midtown, again leaving riders of the nation's largest transit system facing the possibility of a full-blown shutdown a week before the holidays. Talks ended about 6 p.m.
In his weekly radio address, Mayor Michael Bloomberg yesterday urged the union not to walk out tomorrow and said the city is prepared with contingency plans in case of a strike, which would drain $400 million a day from the local economy.
"Although such action would be reprehensible, we need to be prepared for it," he said. "By working together and looking out for each other, we will be able to weather this storm."
Yesterday, Transport Workers Union Local 100 asked the state Public Employment Relations Board in Albany to seek a court order barring the MTA from making its final offer contingent on pensions changes.
Triboro and Jamaica buses are two private bus lines that serve up to 60,000 people a day. Their employees have been working without a contract for three years, and they are being taken over by the MTA early next year. Workers at the private companies are exempt from the Taylor Law, which bars public employees from striking.
Jamie Van Bramer, a spokesman for the private lines, said there were no contingency plans. "If this happens, we're just not going to provide service," he said.
While Dellaverson acknowledged that the private company workers are not bound by the Taylor Law, he did caution them to re-consider their walk-out.
"The employees at Triboro and Jamaica do need to have some serious thinking about engaging in this activity," he said. Dellaverson did not elaborate.
After negotiations broke off Friday morning, the union's executive board voted to launch a strike at Triboro and Jamaica this morning, with a citywide walkout by 34,000 bus and subway workers to follow tomorrow at 12:01 a.m.
"They'll probably come after us with a vengeance but we have to take a stand," said Pou, referring to the Taylor Law fines. "We're scared."
The main obstacle to a settlement appears to be the MTA's demand that new employees not qualify for full pensions until age 62, compared with age 55 for most current workers. A union lawyer said yesterday that the Taylor Law prohibits either side from insisting on pension changes in its final contract offer.
"A change in pensions requires an act of the state legislature," he said. "Therefore, it is outside the realm of what you can require somebody to bargain with you about."
Dellaverson dismissed the issue as a publicity stunt, and noted that both sides had negotiated over pensions in the past.
Officials with the Public Employee Relations Board, whose members are appointed by Gov. George Pataki, could not be reached for comment.
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