Bloomberg slanders strikers

January 21, 2013

Don Lash reports on the issues at stake in the NYC school bus drivers' strike.

Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 walk the picket line.

SCHOOL BUS drivers, attendants and mechanics from Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1181 have been on strike in New York since January 16. The city's drive to eliminate job security for workers, which has been part of its contracts with bus companies for the past 34 years, sparked the strike. This Employee Protection Provision (EPP) was originally won as a result of a three-month strike in 1979.

The EPP is vital to bus workers, because the more than 7,000 bus routes in the city are constantly being created, changed and "put out to bid." The number of routes a company serves is subject to change during and between school years, so the EPP provides some assurance of security and stability for workers.

Workers have picketed at major bus depots during the day, with skeleton crews at other locations to watch out for management attempts to bring scabs in to run the buses.

"This is about our livelihoods," said Crystal Ocasio, an attendant with 15 years of experience, at a picket line in Queens. "Where would we go if we don't have this? There will be a whole lot more unemployment, homelessness, people applying for welfare." Lisa, who has also been a union bus worker for 15 years, agreed. "This is about job security and the safety of the children," she said.

Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 walk the picket line
Members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 walk the picket line

In the Bronx, Carmen, an attendant with 20 years' experience, said that parents are not aware of how much training workers receive in order to care for children with disabilities. She expressed her appreciation that so many parents are supportive of the workers, observing that the more parents learn about the strike and its causes, the more supportive they tend to become.

Another attendant talked about needing to know how to talk to special-needs students who may need special attention to maintain a safe environment on the bus. A third added that skill and judgment is required with all young people on buses, not just those classified as disabled.

The value of trained, experienced bus personnel has been affirmed by solidarity from parents. Parents to Improve School Transportation (PIST) issued a press release on the first day of the strike beginning:

As the parents and guardians of NYC school children, we support the school bus union members who, to protect their careers, have been forced to strike by the mayor and the [Department of Education].

The press release continued with statements by a number of PIST parents, one of whom agreed with union leaders' comparison of the city's attempt to abolish EPP with attacks on the rights of unionized working people in Ohio and Michigan. "Corner-cutting by the DOE under mayoral control had already lowered busing standards," said another parents quoted in the release. "It's not an accident that we are PIST."

ON THE other side, the Rupert Murdoch-owned New York Post has echoed attacks on the union by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott. The paper's coverage has accused the union of "extortion" and asserted that picketers trying to induce a non-striking bus driver to honor the picket line by briefly lying in front of his bus were guilty of "bullying tactics."

The Teamsters local representing the non-striking drivers has said it cannot strike in solidarity, but will honor picket lines, so a picketer trying nonviolently to ensure that the pledge is honored can hardly be described as a bully.

The Post has also slandered the strikers with guilt by association by highlighting the fact that long-departed leaders of ATU Local 1181 were associated with organized crime. This is true--and it's also true that the bus companies the city has allied itself with also have a record of racketeering.

Corrupt industries often attract labor racketeers, and it is invariably the rank-and-file members who are the victims of their activities. In the case of Local 1181, kickbacks from bus companies purchased lax enforcement of safety standards and contract provisions. Members of Local 1181, including a group called Local 1181 Members for Change, fought mob control from within.

By coupling the stories about Local 1181's history with the Post's description of the strike as "extortion," the paper seems to be making a crude attempt to equate striking workers with racketeers.

Bloomberg's statements have been similarly dishonest, but have the added distinction of being contradictory as well.

In one breath, he says that the dispute has nothing to do with the city, because the workers are employed by private bus companies with which the city contracts, and that the city is only following the directives of the state's highest court. But it was the city itself that got the state legislature to pass a law to defend job security--only to then turn around and ask the governor to veto the measure. So it was the city's initiative that created the current impasse.

With his next breath, the mayor states that stripping the workers of job security and forcing them to compete with lower-cost, inexperienced drivers is crucial to lowering transportation costs to put more money into the classroom. In other words, he's highlighting how much he will save the city with what he just said he didn't do.

In a press conference on January 14, the mayor talked about the high cost of transporting New York City's students, which approaches $7,000 per pupil per year. He also cited the historic growth since 1979--when the workers won EPP after a three-month strike--suggesting that EPP is responsible for the growth.

ACCORDING TO the mayor, busing cost the city $100 million in 1979 while it costs $1 billion today. These figures have been repeated in the media without critical scrutiny. The fiscal issues are complex, and while it seems odd that a billionaire like Mayor Bloomberg would need help doing the financial math, he apparently does.

First, to make it an apples-to-apples comparison, we need to account for inflation. From 1979 to 2012, a 1,000 percent increase in absolute terms becomes around a quarter of that in constant dollars. That's still fairly substantial--so does the mayor's point stand, or are there explanations other than the selfish desire of experienced workers to keep doing their jobs?

In reality, school bus transportation costs have increased in the last 30 years for several reasons that have nothing to do with workers' pay. New York was the first state in the nation to require that seat belts be installed on all yellow buses, fighting the opposition of the mayor's bus company allies. It's still one of only six states requiring seatbelts on all buses.

There have been other changes in the nature of the safety standards. In 2000, the state passed a "no standing" law requiring a seat for every pupil on every bus, which increased the number of buses and routes required and was expected to increase transportation spending in the city by 10 to 20 percent.

Changes in student population also need to be factored in. The year the mayor chose for the starting point of his "analysis"--1979--came at the end of a decade of declining population and was a low point for student enrollment. More significant is the growth of the number of students with disabilities mandated to receive bus transportation.

Door-to-door special education transportation is more expensive than standard yellow bus service, and special education enrollment has grown substantially since 1979. Coincidentally, that was the same year a federal court found New York City liable for failing to perform timely evaluations to determine whether students were entitled to special-education services, and special-education enrollment mushroomed after the court-ordered reforms.

In 1978-79, about 50,000 students received special education; in 2012, it's about 160,000 students, 54,000 of whom require special education busing.

At least as important have been "reforms" Bloomberg has championed since the advent of "mayoral control" of the school system at the beginning of his first term. New York City long ago abandoned the goal of improving all schools in all neighborhoods in favor of a dizzying array of "school choice" policies and restructuring initiatives involving constantly closing "failing" schools and opening new ones.

These changes result in a perpetual reshuffling of the student population, meaning that students are traveling longer distances to attend school. When students are redistributed and reenrolled, bus routes have to be changed and reorganized. Charter schools, which have multiplied during the Bloomberg years, also account for a sizable chunk of increased spending on transportation. Some 20 percent of charter school students receive busing, and charter schools tend to recruit a widely dispersed student body, according to the New York Daily News.

The growth of special education enrollment--and the "reform agenda" under mayoral control--explains how 2,000 bus routes in 1979 have become more than 7,000 34 years later. This, rather than the EPP, explains the cost increase. Scapegoating the drivers is just an attempt to make them pay the bill for the city's policies.

Michelle Hehn and Lucy Herschel contributed to this article.

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