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Borough bus employees may vote to end strike

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The borough’s striking bus employees may soon have a chance to end the dispute by secret ballot, union leaders said this week, but commuter headaches are expected to linger beyond the strike’s conclusion as workers struggle to put the fleets back on the road.

“We anticipate very shortly putting a tentative settlement up for vote by the members on the private lines,” said Dave Katzman, a spokesman for Transport Workers Union Local 100. “At this point we’re just at the painful stage of hammering out final details to permit that ballot to go ahead.”

The buses operated by Queens Surface Corp., Triboro Coach and Jamaica Buses have sat idle since June 17, when workers walked off the job citing the city’s refusal to increase the funding of the union’s health plan.

The strike has forced 115,000 Queens riders to seek other forms of transportation.

Although Borough President Helen Marshall already hammered out a tentative deal to provide $2 million in funding for medical benefits, the union still is translating the proposal into a formal agreement.

“That was a starting point, not an end point as far as contract language is concerned,” Katzman said.

Although the mechanism for the vote has yet to be determined, Katzman said it will either be done by mail or in booths.

But Queens Surface spokesman Michael Gill said the company has not had any formal communications with the union since talks broke off three weeks ago over Marshall’s proposed settlement because it provided no guarantee of job security.

“There’s been no direct sitdown with the union that I’m aware of that’s really taken place since then,” Gill said. “Everything has been on hold now waiting for the union to respond.”

A resolution by City Councilman Tony Avella (D-Bayside) offering job security to the 1,500 striking workers has won support from 44 of the Council’s 51 members, satisfying the union’s other major demand.

“People are very anxious now and we want to see this move ahead,” Avella said Tuesday. “Hopefully, the vote will be a positive one.”

Although the resolution has no power unto itself, Avella said it sends a clear message that the City Council will protect the jobs, wages and benefits of the workers once the Department of Transportation submits an authorizing resolution to bid out the franchise agreements for the private bus lines — which may put the bus service in the hands of new companies.

The city heavily subsidizes the private bus lines and must approve any contract negotiated between the union and company management. Drivers and mechanics for the three bus lines have gone without a contract for a year and a half.

But the end of the strike will not bring about an immediate resumption of bus service: The fleets have sat idle for so long that they will need to undergo maintenance before they are ready to begin operating again, a process that could take days.

“We’re just very concerned about how many days it is effectively going to take to get the buses rolling again,” Gill said. “We just know that there’s going to be a lot of problems in the startup of this.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

Posted 7:10 pm, October 10, 2011
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