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Bus strike wrecks havoc on boro commuters

Union officials were to meet with the owners of the bus lines Wednesday, but negotiations with the city to end the work stoppage had not yet begun. The unions and the city were expected to discuss the strike during a general meeting scheduled for Thursday about the looming Metropolitan Transit Authority takeover of the city's remaining private bus lines by the end of April.In downtown Jamaica, one of the areas affected by the strike called by workers for the Green Bus Lines in Jamaica and the Command Bus Company in Brooklyn, commuters easily found replacement rides with private operators of so-called "dollar vans," even though the vans arrived and left at irregular intervals and could not accept their MetroCards."This is ridiculous," one man said as he climbed aboard a van near the intersection of Jamaica Avenue and Sutphin Boulevard. "Now I'm going to be late for work," a woman said as she stepped inside. Community Board 12 District Manager Yvonne Reddick reported that some vans were not running the full bus routes, forcing passengers to switch vehicles and pay the $1.50 fare multiple times. Overall, however, riders seemed to take the change in stride and were familiar with the routine since the vans were pressed into service three weeks ago during a Green Lines work slowdown. Many commuters said they supported the striking workers despite the inconvenience."I think they should accommodate the drivers," said Lula Davis, 67, as she headed home from her doctor's office in a red van driving along Jamaica Avenue. "I'm not mad at them, but they should come to the table."Green Bus Lines operates in southern and central Queens to supplement city service and to give riders a lift in areas short on subway service. When the company went on strike, the city authorized the dollar vans to collect passengers at bus stops along certain uncovered routes, an activity for which they normally get fined. The vans replaced the Green Lines' Q6, Q10, Q11 and Q40 buses, which service downtown Jamaica, South Jamaica, Kew Gardens, Rego Park, Howard Beach and Kennedy Airport.While the striking employees were concerned about the effect the MTA takeover would have on wages and pensions, the walkout that started 12:01 a.m. Monday began specifically because an ongoing shortage of funds for workers' medical coverage could soon leave workers uninsured, union leaders said."We don't mean to cause an inconvenience to the riding public," said Randall Rozzell, a driver for the Green Bus Lines for the past 15 years and a vice president for its union, Local 1179 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. "But health benefits are an issue that affects everyone." Rozzell spoke Tuesday outside the Green Bus depot at 165-25 147th St. near Kennedy Airport, where he was joined on the picket line by dozens of the company's 600 workers, many holding signs as trucks drove by and honked in support.In an effort to resolve the strike before the Thursday meeting, Borough President Helen Marshall spoke with union leaders Monday. Both the unions and the Bloomberg administration have blamed each other for failing to sit down for talks, saying the other side did not call or show up for scheduled meetings."We've been waiting by the telephone for days and weeks waiting for them to contact us, " said John Longo, president of Local 1179. Green Bus Lines employees have worked without a contract for two years, and union leaders said the prolonged talk about a bus takeover had led the city not to increase funding for the lines until the transfer occurred. As a result, the owners had not been able to give their employees a new deal nor put more money in a fund for medical insurance. The union leaders said the fund owed its old carrier $1.5 million and soon may be dropped by its new provider. "They keep telling us to wait, wait, wait," Longo said of the city.While the strike was a response the medical fund, Green Lines and Command workers also wanted to be assured that their jobs would be safe, their pensions secure and their wages raised during the takeover, scheduled to be completed by April 30. They want the city to put its promises in writing because of the fog of negotiations. "We're not against a takeover of the private buses, it's how it's handled," Longo said.As a result of the Marshall meeting, city negotiator James Hanley called the union heads Monday night, but his calls were not returned, a spokesman for Bloomberg said. The spokesman said the city would give the unions a guarantee that their members would be taken care of during the takeover and said while the city cannot officially negotiate with the workers until that point, Hanley was willing to discuss the issues. Turning to the lack of a contract and the unions' medical fund, the spokesman said the owners were responsible. He said Green Bus Lines receives 70 percent of its revenue from the city and characterized the owners' attitude as "Give me more money, give me more money." City Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) and City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) unsuccessfully tried to broker a meeting between the city and the unions Tuesday, Bloomberg's spokesman said Miller, who plans to run against the incumbent in the upcoming mayoral race, had received campaign contributions from the unions and was not an impartial mediator. Striking workers vowed to stay off the job until their concerns were addressed.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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