New York School Bus Strike Ends

Thousands of striking bus drivers and aides, along with union and community allies, marched across Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall February 10 to protest the city’s refusal to respect the employee protections. The strike ended grimly today. Photo: Mike Fleshman.

New York’s five-week school bus strike ended today with more than 8,000 union members returning to work—and an uncertain future. The union was unable to convince the city to intervene to protect seniority and other job protections in its bidding process for private companies.

The strike halted rides for 100,000 New York City schoolchildren, including tens of thousands with special needs.

The final blow came when the city opened the bidding process for a portion of the bus routes with contracts expiring in the fall. These cover approximately 2,000 workers. Without the employment protections, if a company loses its bid, the employees are out of a job. Even if companies maintain their routes, there is concern they would be able to hire new employees and disregard seniority.

“We have to keep fighting if there is something to fight for,” said Berlot Jean-Baptiste, a 16-year driver. He said members stayed on strike as long as the issue of bidding was open to pressure from the union and community allies. But when the Department of Education went ahead and put the bids out without the employee protections, the union’s leverage was gone: “What we were on strike for, we already lost it.”

A week before the union voted to end the strike, thousands of striking bus drivers and aides, along with union and community allies, marched across Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall to protest the city’s refusal to respect the employee protections.

Under the employee protections, when a subcontractor lost a route, displaced drivers and matrons could transfer into open positions at other bus companies, based on their seniority in the industry. Their new employers were required to pay wages and benefits according to industry seniority—preventing contractors from dropping veteran drivers or pushing standards down through turnover.

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 President Michael Coriello announced the end of the strike after the group of Democrat mayoral candidates hoping to replace Mayor Bloomberg in the fall election, including current city council speaker Christine Quinn and city officials John Lui and Bill De Blasio, offered a fig leaf to the union in return for ending the strike. In a joint statement they committed to revisiting the employment protections if elected.

“It’s not really a guarantee, but that could give us some hope,” Jean-Baptiste said.

Parents Supported Strikers

Many parents groups supported the drivers and matrons during the strike, despite the havoc it brought. Parents for Improved School Transportation issued a critical statement to the mayoral candidates who brokered the return to work: “What will busing look like from September until your inauguration? Our children do not have a guarantee until a critical mass of experienced matrons and drivers have a guarantee.”

In the meantime, it’s not clear how bus drivers and aides will fare without the employee protections in place—particularly those with seniority, who in the past were the first hired when bus companies got city contracts, but may now find themselves at the bottom of the list.

When senior workers get to the top of the wage scale, they make about $40,000 a year. It’s easy to see why companies would prefer to find new drivers and pay them a starting wage of $14 an hour, or $11 for aides.

There will be another round of bids in 2014, and by 2015 all city school bus contracts will sunset, assuming there isn’t a change of heart from the city. Now the union will have to negotiate directly with the bus companies over seniority, wages and benefits.

Some workers are already under attack. One hundred aides arrived Wednesday morning to rejoin the bus routes at the depot in Brooklyn, only to find that their bus company, Canal Escorts Inc., fired them. The owner told the press that he, too, had lost much money during the strike. It is unclear whether companies like this will hire replacement workers or close up shop entirely.

The Department of Education reimbursed parents for transportation costs to the tune of $20 million, but the city announced savings of $80 million during the strike.

Not all routes were stopped. Members of Teamsters Local 284 were under contract and continued to work throughout, as did non-union drivers and aides.

Although public-sector strikes are illegal in New York, the National Labor Relations Bureau ruled that the strike was legal because the bus companies were the primary employer—but that the city was also a primary employer, despite the Department of Education’s claims that it could not be involved in negotiations.

Whose Costs?

The union disputes that the employee protections were what was driving up costs for the city.

National transit union president Larry Hanley said the Democratic mayoral candidates, who worked to resolve the strike, agreed the rising transportation costs did not come from the workers’ wages and benefits. “There are so many ways they are wasting money,” said Jean-Baptiste of the bus companies and the city.

Bloomberg and the Department of Education have publicly stated their commitment to bringing down costs, but many are skeptical.

“They don’t talk about how much money the companies make, and the contractors,” said Jean-Baptiste. “Whatever money they make, they aren’t paying us that much money.”

With an uncertain future, union members are hoping that any new mayor is better than Bloomberg. ATU President Hanley said in a statement, “It is significant to us that the next mayor of New York has already recognized the principles of fairness that are required to govern a city, and that those we employ to serve our children deserve a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”

This article has been corrected; the number of the workers affected in the recent round of bidding is 2,000.

Samantha Winslow is a staff writer and organizer with Labor Notes.samantha@labornotes.org