New York City school bus drivers went on strike today for the first time in 34 years, forcing 152,000 public and parochial school students to find alternative ways to get to class.
The largest U.S. public-school system offered free MetroCards to pay subway and bus fares for affected students as well as for parents of preschoolers and those with special needs. Parents also will be reimbursed if they need to drive or hire a car to bring children to school, officials said.
The drivers, who are employed by companies, stopped working to protest the city’s refusal to guarantee jobs based on seniority as it seeks bids on new contracts for 1,100 routes serving 22,500 special-needs children. The current agreements expire June 30. About 54,000 of the students affected by the walkout are disabled, while 41,000 attend parochial schools.
“The union drivers are striking against our children, plain and simple,” Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said yesterday during a Manhattan news briefing. “We will be prepared.” More transit police, school-safety officers and crossing guards will be deployed to help students reach classrooms, he said.
“It’s a major inconvenience, to say the least, and everyone’s dreading it,” said Melody Woolford, 38, whose son Owen, 6, takes a yellow bus from their Upper West Side home to Hunter College Elementary School at East 94th Street and Madison Avenue. She also has a 4-year-old son in preschool closer to home at West 91st Street and West End Avenue that she must pick up at 2:30 p.m., about 20 minutes before Owen’s school day ends.
“The hardest part will be picking up kids in the afternoon,” Woolford said.
As a chief operating officer for a nonprofit company, she can work most days at home. That will make her the parent that many others will turn to for help getting their children to and from school, she said. If the strike lasts more than a few days, she’ll seek reimbursement from the city, provided the forms aren’t too difficult, she said.
New York’s busing costs have skyrocketed to $1.1 billion a year from $100 million in 1979, with the city spending an average of $6,900 per bused child, more than any district in the country, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said. Most of the system’s 1.1 million students walk or use mass transit to get to class.
Drivers earn about $14 an hour, rising to $29 an hour after six years, and average about $38,000 a year, said Michael Cordiello, president of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents the workers. Changes in school locations and rules have increased the number of routes to about 7,700 from 2,000 in 1979, he said.
Bloomberg has cited a 2011 decision by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest tribunal, that he said prohibits the city from offering job security to bus drivers who aren’t city employees. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“We are not negotiating with the union drivers,” Bloomberg said during the news briefing yesterday. “They don’t work for the city; they work for private companies, and the highest judge in the state has ruled it is illegal to do it.”
The union’s lawyer, Richard Gilberg, has countered that the court limited its decision to circumstances where no benefit could be shown in retaining experienced drivers. Bus contracts have provided job security for more than 30 years, he said.
Employment protection “is directly linked to the safety and security of our children by ensuring the city’s most qualified, skilled and experienced school bus crews remain on the job,” Cordiello said at a Jan. 14 news briefing.