As the school bus strike goes into its third week, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transport Workers union is calling on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reconsider what it calls a "cooling off" period so drivers and escorts can go back to work while stakeholders search for cost savings in the expensive school bus contracts.
Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello said Mayor Bloomberg rejected the offer on Monday, after representatives from the union and the bus companies met at Gracie Mansion with Justice Milton Mollen, who settled the 1979 school bus strike. Cordiello urged the mayor to reconsider the benefits of the temporarily halting the bids for new bus contracts.
"The city, the contractors and the union would sit down and talk about real cost-saving measures and preserving existing employees," he said.
Cordiello held a press conference at the offices of another labor union, 32BJ-SEIU, which represents building workers. He was joined by Larry Hanley, who heads the national Amalgamated Transit Workers Union.
"Our drivers tell us they run inefficient routes," he said, which adds to costs. "We have no control over that. We want to have that dialogue. But we can't do it just talking to ourselves."
Hanley suggested that the Department of Education, which sets the 7700 bus routes, could save money by filling up more long buses instead of relying as heavily on vans. He also said more children are being bused now than decades ago because of the growth of charter schools and the number of special education pupils who are driven to schools in other counties, in order to meet their federally-protected rights to services that meet their needs.
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called on the city to consider the "cooling off period." Quinn is running to succeed Bloomberg.
But Mayor Bloomberg has refused to get involved in the dispute, claiming it's between the union and the bus companies. He said the city bid out 1100 of its bus routes this year (all special education routes), without the employee protections the union has counted on for more than 30 years, because a 2011 court ruling found the protections illegal. The union disagrees with this interpretation.
In response the union's call for a "cooling-off period," City Hall spokeswoman Lauren Passalacqua said:
"Postponing the bids would guarantee that the same billion-dollar contracts we have now stay in place next year. The union is irresponsibly holding our students and City hostage over issues that can only be resolved by negotiating directly with the bus companies.”
But Hanley, of the Amalgamated Transit Union, accused Bloomberg of spreading a "myth" that employee protections and wages are responsible for the $1 billion-dollar annual cost of busing 152,000 students. He noted that the average salary for drivers is about $35,000 a year.
When asked on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show whether the employee protections - namely seniority perks - make it too hard for new bus company to choose the drivers it wants, Hanley said the D.O.E. has the right to discipline and fire people who don't perform.
"What remains through that process is a group of highly skilled, highly experienced bus drivers and matrons who the parents and children love," he said.
Meanwhile, Carolyn Daly, a spokeswoman for the coalition of about 20 bus companies that contract with the striking labor union, reiterated that the city has the right to bid out the contracts to save money:
"The D.O.E.'s costs for busing are driven primarily by the transportation requirements of special needs students who represent one third of the students taking buses each day. Labor increases over the past 30 years have primarily impacted the bus companies which pay the salaries for their drivers, while their rate of compensation from the D.O.E. has not changed since 1979 except for statutorily limited cost of living adjustments."
One of the bus companies, Pioneer, sent its members another letter urging them to come back to work and noted that their health insurance will expire on February 1st.