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Prince George's bus drivers strike: Fare is free but service severely limited

Bus operators and mechanics picket outside Prince George's County Public Works facility in Forestville. Their contract expired June 30.
Bus operators and mechanics picket outside Prince George's County Public Works facility in Forestville. Their contract expired June 30. (James A. Parcell for The Post)
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By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thousands of riders faced uncertain commutes Tuesday as union officials said a Prince George's County bus strike that began this week would continue until their demands are met.

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On Monday, TheBus was operating with limited or no service on its 25 routes. Union officials planned to return to the bargaining table Tuesday, but passengers such as Bryan Coleman, 24, of Greenbelt, who rides TheBus to work at the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, were making alternate plans.

"I was on my way to see what time the bus came, but I guess I'll take the train now," said Coleman, who was walking toward a bus stop near the Largo Town Center Metro station. "It will affect me financially. The bus is cheaper than the train."

Monday morning, the county suspended fares on all routes for passengers who ride TheBus until the strike ends.

Thomas Ratliff, president of Teamsters Local 639, said union members want better job security, improved health insurance, higher wages and changes in the disciplinary policy. The union has been in negotiations with Veolia Transportation, the company that operates TheBus for the county, since their contract expired June 30.

"There is no job security there," said Ratliff, who added that drivers are routinely disciplined for what he called minor infractions.

The main dispute involves cameras that were installed on buses in 2006. Ratliff said the cameras have become "supervisors on board."

For example, Ratliff said, if a driver is caught in the middle of an intersection when a light turns red, the driver is often disciplined or suspended.

"It's just unreasonable," Ratliff said.

Company officials say the cameras, which Metro announced last month it was installing on its buses, help monitor driver performance and improve safety. Veolia Transportation employs 136 full-time and 12 part-time workers in Prince George's, including drivers and mechanics.

Ruth Otte, a spokeswoman for Veolia Transportation, said the company had "an inkling that [a strike] could happen," although the timing was uncertain.

Veolia Transportation, which operates buses in 120 cities and jurisdictions across the country, including Baltimore and Loudoun County, has been providing service in Prince George's since 1999, Otte said. TheBus carries about 14,000 passengers a day, she said.

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