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  Public Employee Press

PEP Feb 2001
Table of Contents
  La Voz

Public Employee Press

Ferry workers seek safe harbor

Local 1505 fights back after passengers brutally beat member with a broom


When Bessie Sowell became a matron on the Staten Island Ferry 26 years ago, management said her job was to “keep the boats clean and safe for passengers and tourists.” But after three passengers viciously attacked the 60-year-old as she worked alone, Ms. Sowell and her coworkers ask, “Who will keep these boats safe for us?”

The Attendants and Debris Removers of Local 1505 keep the bathrooms clean for thousands of Staten Island Ferry passengers each day. They work alone in round-the-clock shifts. Increasingly, the workers report harassment and verbal and physical assaults by volatile passengers — vagrants, street gangs and commuters with bad attitudes — who see the ferry workers as easy targets.

To make things worse, mice, rats, disease-carrying pigeons and seagulls have overrun the terminals. Fire exits are blocked and elevators and escalators are constantly out of service. The ferry docks are an unsafe harbor for the people who work there.

On Jan. 8, 2000, unprovoked, two female passengers attacked Ms. Sowell, punching her in the face and body while a male passenger held her down. As other riders rushed to disembark, the trio beat her senseless with a broomstick. She was so frightened, she could not scream. “I said to myself, ‘They’re going to kill me tonight.’ ”

“Bessie’s situation is a tragedy that could have been prevented if the Dept. of Transportation had acted on our requests sooner,” said Local 1505 President Michael Hood. He has pressed the agency to provide better police protection and working conditions on the ferries and in the terminals. The local is also pursuing grievances charging that DOT has failed to prevent the violence.

Some say conditions worsened after Mayor Giuliani eliminated the 25-cent fare, attracting the wrong element. Transit police once patrolled the terminals and boats. But since the transit force merged with the NYPD and fares are no longer collected, workers say protection is inconsistent at best. “Police protected the money, but who will protect the people?” Ms. Sowell asked.

“It’s not safe for women,” said Chief Shop Steward Charles Willis. Beer is sold on board and “some passengers are inebriated, ornery and looking for trouble.”

Inspectors from the DC 37 Safety and Health Unit describe working conditions as poor. Since a fire destroyed three slips at the 100-year-old Manhattan terminal a decade ago, capital renovations have been slow. “There are so many mice running across the floor, it looks like they’re playing football in here,” said Mr. Willis. As he pointed out gaping holes in the prefabricated walls and ceilings, he described rats “as big as Shetland ponies” overrunning the area.

“We haven’t had as much success with the DOT as anticipated,” said Mr. Hood, “We will continue to file grievances and seek arbitration and legal remedies to force the agency to improve conditions for our members.”



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