2002-03-13 / Front Page

Push For Bus Pact, Driver And Passenger Security

By John Toscano

Trying to settle job and pension security issues between bus drivers and operators so Queens’ 180,000 passengers will have an uninterrupted commute in the future is becoming entangled with the possibility that some bus companies may not have their franchises with the city renewed.

City Councilmember Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who has been trying to broker a contract settlement between 1,400 union members and seven bus companies is simultaneously meeting with city officials to try to settle the franchise issue because the union contract and franchise issues are tightly interrelated.

Avella said at a March 4 meeting of his Zoning and Franchises Subcommittee at City Hall: "The overriding issue is the Department of Transportation (DOT) request for an authorizing resolution from the City Council that would permit bus routes in Queens to be put out for new Requests for Proposals (RFPs). The Transit Workers Union Local 100, however, is concerned that its members would be replaced or would have their wages and benefits curtailed if the franchises were awarded to new bus companies."

Avella said that while these issues have lingered for almost a decade, it is time now, once and for all, to come to an agreement that will enable the city to provide bus service that we, as the greatest city in the world, can provide.

Queens Borough President Helen Marshall, also interested in working out an agreement that protects bus drivers’ jobs and pensions, said any new franchisees must agree to commit to present pension plans. "One Enron should be enough of a wakeup call to everyone concerned that the pensions of workers are sacrosanct," she declared.

Marshall said quick action was needed because bus service is essential to thousands of seniors, workers and youngsters who use the buses every day.

Avella explained later that any of the present franchisees which have pension plans in place for the union members which lose their franchise must immediately put enough money into the system to pay potential retirees.

"Under any circumstances," Avella said, "pensions could go belly up and you could have another Enron," a reference to the Texas energy giant that went bankrupt and wiped out thousands of employee pensions.

The immediate vesting of the pensions would cost about $40 to $50 million, Avella said.

However, the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg has shown no interest in solving the problem by renewing the present franchises when they come due.

Speaking for the administration, DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall said it remains committed to calling for competitive bidding on the bus routes as the franchises come up for renewal over the next two years.

Weinshall told Avella’s subcommittee that there is no legal mandate for specific employee protection provisions to be inserted in the RFPs being sought. She also said she intends to begin the bidding procedure with two firms operating on expired franchises—Command Bus in Brooklyn and Queens Surface, one of three Queens franchisees that drivers walked out on recently.

The seven bus lines receive combined subsidies of more than $165 million a year from the city, but most of that comes from the federal government.

Avella said that he and Council Speaker A. Gifford Miller (Manhattan) told the DOT "We’ve got to give the present franchises a chance to bid—any new bus operator without a union contract could easily win a franchise but it could cause a lot of problems."

The seven lines, all privately owned, serve about 200,800 customers a week, 180,000 of them in Queens where five companies operate.

The recent two-day strike by drivers working for Jamaica, Triboro Coach and Queens Surface, all based in East Elmhurst, stranded 120,000 riders. The purpose of the strike was to try to pressure the Bloomberg administration to intervene in the contract dispute–franchise renewal mess but the administration refuses to get sucked in.

Local 100 President, Roger Toussaint told Avella’s panel, "Our members’ patience has simply run out, which has produced this crisis we are in."

Marshall pointed out that the City Council must authorize DOT to put out RFPs on the franchise agreements. Before doing so it must ensure that job and pension protections will be part of the RFP.

She said the commitment will not cost the city any money, and is already a part of agreements between the Board of Education and school bus drivers.

Marshall also called on the Bloomberg administration to come to the bargaining table to avert any future strikes. She said that since the city is already involved through city reimbursements which pay workers’ salaries, either DOT or the Office of Labor Relations should be involved in the labor negotiations.

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