By Dustin Brown
Buses from three private lines once again rolled the streets of Queens Friday when a rapid response by city officials brought the drivers’ two-day strike to an end, but the threat of further service disruptions will loom until the city meets the union’s demands.
In a hearing held Monday by the City Council’s Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises, Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Roger Toussaint said the labor dispute could not be resolved unless the city takes definitive action.
“The issue at hand is an assurance of job and pension protections for our private lines members,” Toussaint told the subcommittee, which is chaired by City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside). “The city of New York has a moral as well as a legal responsibility to legislatively put in place long-term provisions safeguarding the jobs and pensions of these transportation workers.”
The union members face the prospect of losing their jobs and pensions if the city bids out the private bus routes, which may put the service in the hands of entirely new companies and bankrupt their pension plan.
Toussaint said in an interview following the hearing that if the City Council does not act by the end of the month to put protections in place, it “would force us into making some unfortunate decisions,” such as calling another strike.
But numerous council members promised they would not allow the city to bid out the bus franchises without providing the protections the union is demanding.
“It’s incumbent upon the city to make sure we don’t have a situation where all these folks are not protected, are out of work, and are not getting adequate protection,” said Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills) in an interview after the hearing. “What is being asked of to me doesn’t seem that outrageous.”
Drivers, mechanics and other unionized employees at Queens Surface Corp., Triboro Coach and Jamaica Buses hit the picket lines Feb. 27 after 18 months of negotiations failed to produce a contract, a goal that remained elusive following another round of talks held at 3:30 p.m. on the first day of the strike. They returned to work Friday after striking for two days.
But the union’s demands for protection of its employees’ jobs and pensions no matter which companies wins the contracts is a guarantee that can only be provided by the city, which did not participate in the talks.
The city began to subsidize bus service on several private lines in the 1970s, and while the bus companies’ original franchises have long since expired, the Council has repeatedly granted extensions to allow the companies to continue providing the service.
But Department of Transportation Commissioner Iris Weinshall told the committee the program “needs to be overhauled” through a competitive bidding process that would save money and make it more efficient and cost-effective. The DOT plans to soon submit an authorizing resolution, which must win City Council approval, putting up for bid the routes that are now run by Command Bus Company and Queens Surface Corp.
The three companies whose union members went on strike collectively provide a multi-employer pension plan to their workers. But if those lines lose their franchises with the city, the companies would go bankrupt and bring the pension plan along with them — ultimately leaving the companies saddled with a $40 million liability.
In addition to the protections, the union is also demanding the pensions actually be increased and improved, a provision the bus companies refuse to sign onto because it would only increase by millions of dollars their liability should the bus contracts go elsewhere.
The legal issues surrounding the demands forced Weinshall to withhold making any specific comments about whether or not the union’s demands could be met.
She told the hearing that Corporation Counsel, the city’s lawyers, advised her the city is not legally required to include an employee protection clause in the Council’s resolution, and that it may in fact be inconsistent with the idea of having a competitive bid.
“While the employees most affected do not work for the city, we are concerned about their well-being,” Weinshall continued. “As such, given the complexities of this issue and potential affects on the employees, we look forward to a continuing dialogue between DOT, the Council and the Corporation Counsel’s office on this issue.”
But union leaders responded with harsh criticism of her position.
“Savings that arise only from eliminating one work force and replacing it with another work force with lower pay and lesser benefits is not genuine competition,” Toussaint said. “It is simply class warfare of the most insidious kind.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at [email protected] or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.