Union Plans School Bus Strike Wednesday Morning

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5:27 p.m. |Update

This report has been updated to reflect the mayor's statement and other details throughout.

The head of the union that represents almost nine thousand school bus drivers and matrons said his members will go on strike starting Wednesday morning.

"Striking is not illegal," said Michael Cordiello, president of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. He told reporters that the union's demand to include an employee protection provision in any new contracts the city signs with bus companies has legal merit despite the claims to the contrary by both the mayor and the schools chancellor.

“With its regrettable decision to strike, the union is abandoning 152,000 students and their families who rely on school bus service each day. As Chancellor Walcott and I have said, the city will take all steps available to ensure that those who are impacted have the support they need, and we are now activating the protocols we put in place in the event of a strike," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement.

"Let me be clear: the union’s decision to strike has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with job protections that the city legally cannot include in its bus contracts," the mayor continued. "We hope that the union will reconsider its irresponsible and misguided decision to jeopardize our students’ education.”

Cordiello said there was still a chance for a strike to be averted. He put the ball squarely in Bloomberg's court: "The mayor can end the strike. The mayor can come to us and end the strike."

About a third of the students who rely on bus transportation are the most vulnerable special education children who receive door-to-door service from home to school, often traveling across district lines. “This will have a devastating impact on our students,” Cordiello said.

Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello with other labor leaders

For parents, a strike would be "a horror" said Michael Pollutri, PTA president at the Hungerford School on Staten Island, a District 75 for students with special needs. The school has seven different sites serving about 400 students in middle and high school grades. He said his 15 year-old son, Michael, has autism and could not ride a city bus by himself from his neighborhood in Dongan Hills to the school site near the Staten Island Mall.

"So I'll be going in a car service with my son in the morning taking him to school, which will be like $20, then they have to drive me home then come back at 2 o'clock or a quarter to 2 to go do the same thing," the stay-at-home father explained. "So that's $80 just for me and my son to get to school every day."

Pollutri said he sympathizes with the city's need to save money and with the union's desire to protect its workers. He worries the city will hire people who "know nothing about our kids" as replacement workers. The city has said any workers who are hired by bus companies will have to be trained, the same as current employees.

The president of Teamsters Local 854, Dan Gatto, said his group -- which represents about one thousand bus drivers, matrons and mechanics -- will not strike but their sympathies clearly are with the ATU members.

"Our contracts do not allow for it and we will honor those contracts. However, we believe our contracts also allow us to honor picket lines from members of the ATU, and we will not cross their picket lines. In addition, many of our members work in garages with members of the ATU, and without those workers on the job, those garages will not be able to function properly or safely. We trust the city will recognize those safety concerns and not put children or drivers at risk," Gatto said.

Starting tomorrow, school offices will distribute metrocards to students who use yellow bus service. Reimbursements will be available for families who must drive or use a car service. According to the D.O.E. website:

"Parents who drive their children to school will be reimbursed at a rate of 55 cents per mile. Parents who use a taxi or car service to transport their child to school will be reimbursed for the trip upon completion of reimbursement forms that includes a receipt for provided services. Requests for reimbursements should be made weekly on forms that will be available on the DOE web site, www.schools.nyc.gov, and in schools’ general offices. Families who plan to drive or use a car service to carpool are encouraged to carpool with their neighbors whenever possible."

Dispute over Employee Protections

The issue came to the fore as the city sought savings in contracts that have not been open to competitive bidding for 33 years. Bloomberg said New York City pays $1.1 billion each year for school busing, or an average of $6,900 per student. This is more than any other school system in the country. He cited Los Angeles, which just pays $3,100 per student.

The city bid out the first batch of contracts, for pre-K bus routes, during the last school year. Those bids originally included the employee protections that currently guarantee Local 1181 workers the same pay if they're hired by different bus companies (drivers make between $14-$30 an hour, escorts make less).

But a court found the protections are illegal. With that decision as precedent, the city argues that it cannot legally include the same protections in all other contracts, including the next batch that expire in June for 1,100 routes serving special education students in grades K-12.

This is the heart of the dispute between the city and Local 1181: the union claims that court decision only applied to the Pre-K routes. The city says it applies to all bus contracts.

Jeff Pollack, an attorney for the Coalition of New York City School Bus Companies, which includes about a dozen companies that contract with Local 1181, said both sides potentially have a good case. But he agreed with City Hall that a strike is illegal because it would affect his clients - who are not involved in the dispute.

"We're going to try to operate, we're trying to hire replacement workers, we're doing our best to operate safely," but he said they would first need to be trained and certified.

Meanwhile, drivers say the prospect of the first strike since the 1970's is scary for them, too. "We don't want this," said Reina Martinez, a divorced mother of three grown children who's been driving a bus for 26 years for the company Atlantic Express.

She recalled driving a van of special education students when she first started out, and pick up a child with no arms who was holding onto a school bag with her teeth. "We're not trying to abandon these children. We care for these children. If you did not care for children you would not do this job."