School bus drivers plan strike

The city wants to save money, no matter what the cost to safety, explains Don Lash.

A school bus makes a stop in Manhattan (Matti Mattila)A school bus makes a stop in Manhattan (Matti Mattila)

SOME 9,000 school bus drivers, mechanics and attendants in New York City are set to strike on Wednesday, January 16, in defense of decent working conditions and the safety of the students they serve.

Months ago, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) essentially set out to provoke a strike in order to break the union, as part of a long-term strategy to reduce spending on pupil transportation.

"This is the New York equivalent of Scott Walker's attempts to strip workers in public services of their wages and benefits," said Larry Hanley, president of the 190,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union. "That's what it's intended to do. It is an assault on the foundation of decent wages and decent health care and decent retirement standards."

The city claims that it has no choice in the matter, insisting that a court ruling compels its negotiators to end the inclusion of job protection clauses in contracts it negotiates with private bus companies.

Fortunately for the DOE--although not for the children riding the buses and the workers charged with delivering them to and from school safely--the mainstream media have limited themselves to repeating the DOE talking points that Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1181 is determined to force an "illegal" strike which will harm children and inconvenience parents.

"This is a strike against our children," said DOE Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott at a rare Sunday press conference on January 13. "It is illegal as far as what they are asking us to do, and they are hurting our most vulnerable children, and it is unacceptable." But a strike has been precisely the outcome that the city wanted.

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THE EMPLOYEE Protection Provision (EPP) that the city claims is now "illegal" was a major victory when the union won a three-month strike in 1979. Ever since, the city has required bus companies entering into contracts with the DOE--which does not own and operate buses itself--to prioritize experienced union drivers, mechanics and attendants in hiring. This means that a bidder can't hire cheaper, inexperienced personnel in an effort to give itself a competitive advantage in crafting a low bid.

Bus personnel, who perform a difficult and stressful job and are entrusted with ensuring the safe transport of 152,000 children each day, have a base level of job security, even if their company fails to secure a contract or loses a route. Equally important, students are protected from a "race to the bottom" among bus companies competing to lower labor costs at the expense of safety and professionalism.

Bus companies objected to the EPP because it cut into their profits, but the city defended the EPP against lawsuits filed by bus companies. The city argued that there was an obvious connection between safety and the experience level of bus personnel. After a series of court rulings in favor of the bus companies was affirmed by the state's highest court in June 2011, the city lobbied to have the state legislature pass a bill that would allow it to continue to include the EPP in its bidding process.

At that time, the city took the position that the bill was necessary "to ensure stability for vulnerable children" and to avoid a strike that would disrupt the lives of students and parents. In July 2011, the bill passed both houses without controversy and was sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signature.

Then, the city abruptly reversed itself and asked the governor to veto the bill it had just shepherded through the legislature. In doing so, it went back on everything it had been saying for years about the connection between competent and experienced personnel and maintaining high safety standards. Cuomo obligingly vetoed the bill.

What changed the DOE's mind? The only possible explanation is that the DOE decided that saving money by eliminating the EPP and sparking a race to the bottom to lower labor costs was simply a higher priority than safety and stability.

The city, of course, knew that scrapping EPP would infuriate the union--in fact, it convinced the state legislature to pass the legislation it later called on the governor to veto by telling lawmakers that a strike would certainly follow if EPP wasn't protected by legislation. By rejecting this protection as soon it was achieved, the city was calculating that it could defeat Local 1181 by forcing it into a strike.

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LOCAL 1181 has consistently said that it did not seek a strike, but has been left with no other option because the city is refusing to negotiate over EPP by citing its "illegality"--even though the city first supported then opposed the legislation that would have resolved the issue.

Rank-and-file members of the union are now working with a coalition of parents, and they are ready to fight if the city won't budge. At a rally and press conference on January 6, parents and groups working to improve transportation services joined several hundred bus drivers and attendants. Rank-and-file members of the union blocked traffic on Broadway near City Hall, only letting city buses through.

The crowd was so large that the press conference was moved to a nearby park. But the union leadership missed an opportunity to address the crowd by only speaking during the press conference and then only into reporters' microphones. No effort was made to amplify the statements of the leadership for the rank and file or parent supporters.

Nevertheless, the parents who attended the rally connected the issue of job security with the safety and well-being of their children. One parent of a child with autism who spoke to Free Speech Radio News said she was worried non-union drivers wouldn't have the know-how to drive her special-needs child to school. In all, special-needs students make up 54,000 of the 152,000 kids transported by union drivers.

Bus personnel appear to have a strong sense of their collective power, despite the threats of injunctions and sanctions from the bus companies and insults from Chancellor Walcott and billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg. While the union may have some catching up to do in mobilizing parent support, there is an existing network of supportive parent groups, including Parents to Improve School Transportation, the From Day One Coalition, and Common Sense Busing.

The last strike involving yellow-bus personnel was in 1979, a completely different era in terms of municipal labor relations in New York. It will be vital for public employees, particularly in education and transit, to rally to the support of Local 1181 and to demand that their unions do likewise.

Supporters and allies will also have to work hard to broaden support among the parents of the approximately 1 million public school students. As the solidarity shown by parents during the strike of the Chicago Teachers Union this fall demonstrated, public school parents are recognizing that the attacks on teachers are closely connected to the attacks on their children. Similarly, this attack on bus drivers, attendants and mechanics is part of a broader war on public education and the rights of workers.