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Gray Line Tour Guides Could Be Replaced by Recording

By Sonja Sharp | December 5, 2011 9:22am
Gray Line tour guides could lose their jobs to an automated tour, workers say.
Gray Line tour guides could lose their jobs to an automated tour, workers say.
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DNAinfo/Sonja Sharp

MANHATTAN — A law curtailing blaring megaphones on city tour buses has had an unintended consequence — prompting at least one bus company to threaten to lay off its tour guides and replace them with automated recordings, reps for the tour guides' union said.

Gray Line, which operates the city’s ubiquitous red double-decker buses that shuttle thousands of tourists around Manhattan every day, has said it will lay off more than 100 tour guides in the new year, and replace them with a GPS-driven recording, union reps said. The company, which has been in contract negotiations with the union since October, cited costs to implement a new headphone system mandated by the City Council in 2010.

Gray Line did not return multiple calls for comment.

The 2010 law required Gray Line and its sister company, City Sites, to phase in a headphone system after residents in several Manhattan neighborhoods complained about noise from the tours. The company told workers the law would cost them $3 million to implement — forcing them to consider the layoffs.

But City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who threw her support behind the bill, said it was never intended to cost New Yorkers their jobs.

"I believe in the headphones because it’s not fair for the people who live in these neighborhoods to hear the same discussion over and over again," Brewer told DNAinfo. "But who as a tourist wants to listen to a recording? Live guides make the tourism experience fun and interesting and humorous."

Brewer said she was incensed that the company would use the rule to oust union workers, but said the City Council’s hands were tied.

"I don’t think it’s fair, I really don’t. We gave them five years to phase it in,” she said. “I can’t even imagine going through New York City with a recording, particularly with all of our wonderfully nuanced streets and memorials and so on. I wouldn’t get on a bus that had a recording."

Bloomberg had been hesitant to sign the bill into law in May, after the Transit Workers' Union concerns that the law would cost workers their jobs.

The tour guides union said their current contract expires on December 15, according to Rob Murphy, shop steward for Local 225, the union that represents more than 200 workers at peak summer season. Murphy said that if a contract is not signed by deadline, it would allow Twin America, the company that owns Gray Line, to move ahead with layoffs.

Tourists waiting for the Gray Line on Broadway last week said they hope the union succeeds.

Having no tour guide "would be devastating to the tourists, " said visitor Natasha Swan, 33, of Perth, Australia, as she waited for a Gray Line bus.

"I don't think you'd have the same confidence after you'd been on the tour. Being able to talk to someone and ask questions is very important."

Gail Dinan, who was visiting New York from Columbus, Ohio, for her 50th birthday agreed.

"It's just nice to see a face," she said as she paused to admire the Cathedral of St. John the Divine from her perch atop the bus. "I don't really like automation — I like the human touch. It makes it more real."