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Denver commuters cope with strike

Workers reject contract offer; no plan for talks

DENVER -- Commuters hitched rides with friends, used taxis, and rented cars yesterday when Denver-area transit workers went on strike for the first time in 24 years.

The Regional Transportation District used private contractors to keep about 45 percent of its bus routes running, but closed light-rail operations and a shuttle service stretching along a downtown pedestrian mall.

Traffic flowed fairly smoothly across most highways during the morning rush, but commuters had mixed feelings about the strike.

''I can understand them wanting more benefits and more money -- the [Regional Transportation] drivers -- and though I sympathize with them, I'll have to tell you, me and other riders are real upset," said Sheen Ortega, 55.

No new negotiations were scheduled, although Yvette Salazar, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1001, said the two sides met informally yesterday. She said Regional Transportation District declined the union's suggestion to enter arbitration.

Scott Reed, Regional Transportation spokesman, said the agency would offer no additional money but was willing to restructure how it is distributed.

Union leaders had recommended approval of Regional Transportation's contract, which included a wage hike of $1.80 an hour over three years in 15-cent raises every quarter, plus increases in health benefits. However, 55 percent of workers rejected the offer in a Sunday vote.

Light-rail operator Gary Welch, 36, who voted to reject the proposal, said Regional Transportation could have offered more by cutting. He said big raises were given to some managers, while union wages were frozen -- a blow to the rank-and-file.

''The people, my passengers, they have to understand, this is not against them," Welch said. ''We got to look after ourselves. We got families like anybody else."

Commuter Marsha Preheim, who caught a ride to work with her son-in law, said her sympathies are with the strikers. ''I kind of have to agree with them because of what I read in the papers about [management] raises," she said. ''It's like a slap in the face."

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