Nearly 9,000 school bus workers, represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, are on strike as of 6 a.m. Wednesday. They were driven to picket and protest by a double-cross on job security and child safety by Mayor Bloomberg's office and the Department of Education.
The union wants an Employee Protection Provision (EPP) included in any new contract bid the city accepts from private bus companies. This would protect some of the members with most seniority (the highest paid and most likely to be laid off). It basically says that employees are not guaranteed a position if a new company takes over and can be laid off, but if a position becomes available the new company has to pick from laid off workers, those with seniority to be picked first. The provision has been in bus contacts since the 1960s. It was taken out in the 70s which resulted in a strike. It was put back in in 1979.
Mayor Bloomberg, who has used budgetary excuses to wage war on unions numerous times in his era, has claimed that these dangerous lowest-bidder practices, including the elimination of EPP, are a great way for the city to save money. Sara Catalinotto of Parents to Improve School Transportation (PIST) couldn't disagree more, saying in a statement released yesterday,
.“We strongly doubt the city’s claim that it is dropping the Employee Protection Provision (EPP) to raise money for classrooms. The EPP is a seniority list, ensuring that the most experienced drivers and matrons will be employed first to transport our children – many of whom are students with disabilities. Including the EPP in contracts does not cost the city any extra!”
It is important to note that these workers are not demanding increases in pay, benefits, or pension plans. They are only asking to be kept off the unemployment line. They're right to be concerned, especially the more experienced, senior workers. According to the Goverment Accountability Office, the number of long-term unemployed people age 55 and older has more than doubled since the recession began. More than a third of unemployed older workers have been out of work for more than a year, and 55 percent have been unemployed for more than six months, up from 23 percent in 2007.
The city and DOE’s position is that EPPs are illegal so their hands are tied. The city failed to properly fight a lawsuit levelled against them and the union by private companies regarding the Employee Protection Provision. However, that ruling was only for companies who provide service to pre-K students. The city also asked Gov. Cuomo to veto a bill they had previously supported that would allow those bussing pre-K students to be provided with the same provision. For the Mayor and the DOE to place blame solely on the union and to claim that all EPPs are illegal is inaccurate and irresponsible.
The strike has caused some potential Democratic mayoral candidates to put their ideologies where their mouths are. Bill Thompson, former NYC Comptroller, released a statement Tuesday, saying:
“A school bus strike would be an unfortunate occurrence for all involved and I hope that it can be avoided. The disruption to thousands of families would be painful and we must try at all costs to bring solutions to the bargaining table rather than intransigence. As I have stated before, the bus contracts should be rebid to include job protections that will minimize disruption for our school children, maintain the jobs of experienced drivers and, importantly, save taxpayers’ money. Our children and their families are now caught in a political tug-of-war initiated by the Mayor that must be prevented."
NYC's Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio, and current Comptroller, John Liu, have both come out strongly in favor of the union workers. Mr. de Blasio tweeted "NYC bus drivers make our children's safety their top concern each day. Let's give them the fair contract they deserve! #busStrike". Mr. Liu released a statement Monday:
"Employee-protection provisions are necessary not just for the bus drivers, but also for the safe and reliable transport of city schoolchildren. City Hall’s behavior has been outrageous, and it needs to negotiate with workers immediately to avoid a disruption in school-bus service. The bottom line is: This is about the quality and safety of the busing we provide our special-needs students. Once again, the administration is displaying a pattern of disregard for human needs.”
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, viewed by many as the Democratic front-runner in the mayoral race, remained silent on the issue, perhaps in an effort to ensure an endorsement from Bloomberg in the future. Instead, Ms. Quinn unveiled her plans to improve NYC public schools. Though her plan includes buzz words like "less emphasis on testing" and "only close schools as a last resort," she failed to mention her specific positions on the bus driver strike, as well as other pressing education issues like charter schools, teacher evaluations, and reducing class size.
Most shocking to parents of New York City school children is how quickly and with how little compassion the City and DOE are willing to throw some 152,000 children under the proverbial bus. "Many of us are shocked that our children and grandchildren as young as 8 years old have come home with MetroCards in hand,"said grandparent Margaret DePaula,
"Corner-cutting by the DOE under mayoral control has already lowered busing standards" said Sharlene Figueroa, a mother of three children who depend on the system. "Good busing," she added, "is an aspect of our children's educational civil rights."
This is just one of a number of instances where Bloomberg and his corporate-endeared appointees have proven they care more about union-busting than they do about the welfare of our kids. Though the Mayor and Chancellor Walcott claim the bus workers are "striking against the children of the city", it's actually they and their push to sell off the New York City public education system that have the track record of "striking" against kids. From cutting funding for child care and after school programs, to demonizing teachers, to crowding kids out of their local schools, to even pulling funding specifically ear-marked for students with disabilities from their schools-- mid-year.
The questions parents now face are these: are they willing to allow the Mayor and Chancellor to sell children's safety to the lowest bidder in a petty effort to bust unions? Will the union, parents and their kids be able to overcome the corporate-friendly, anti-labor coverage of a mainstream media racing to defend cost-cutting at the expense of child safety? As New York public school parents fight for school buses maintained by experienced mechanics, with drivers and attendants they know and trust, could this struggle finally ignite a larger resistance against more than a decade of attacks on public education?
--Ava M Capote