Union Suspends School Bus Strike

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7:57 p.m. |Update

Local union 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, representing thousands of school bus drivers and matrons, ended its strike five weeks after it started, setting the stage for all buses to resume their routes Wednesday when students return to school.

"We appreciate the hard work our bus drivers and matrons do and we welcome them back to the job," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement Friday night.

The school bus strike was the first in the city since 1979. About 5,000 of the city's 7,700 routes were affected.

Just 152,000 of New York City's 1.1 million public schoolchildren ride yellow school buses - about a third of them disabled and special-needs students - but the cost of busing students has risen from $100 million in 1979 to $1.1 billion today.

Michael Cordiello, 1181's president, said the decision to return to work on Feb. 20 did not mean the union would stop fighting to include employee protection provisions, or EPPs, in future contracts. And he refuted the allegation that the workers' wages were the cause of the escalating costs.

“The fact is, a safe workforce is an experienced workforce and the Employee Protection Provisions currently included in the City’s busing contracts protect our most experienced drivers, matrons, and mechanics – and have created one of the safest workforces in the entire country," he said.

Cordiello made clear he was waiting for a new person in City Hall, who he's betting will be more amenable than the current mayor.

“In January when Mayor Bloomberg is gone, we are comfortable that his entire scheme will be rejected. We are grateful that so many elected leaders in this city are choosing the facts as a path to a conclusion, rather than a conclusion as a path to the facts,” Cordiello said in his statement.

The mayor cast the win as one of transparency over special interests.

“For decades, the monopolistic bus contract process benefited the bus companies and unions at the expense of the City’s taxpayers and students – but no longer," he said.

The first sign that the strike's end was near came earlier on Friday when union leaders said they were weighing their options after having received a letter from the five Democratic candidates running for mayor which urged them to suspend the strike.

The joint statement by the mayoral candidates called on bus workers to return to their jobs and "continue the battle for job protections in other ways." They signaled their allegiance to the union in its showdown with Mayor Michael Bloomberg by referring to "an intransigent administration" unwilling to negotiate, and by expressing support for the job protections at the heart of the dispute.

The candidates - City Council speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, City Comptroller John Liu, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson and former Councilman Sal Albanese - said that if elected they will revisit the job security issue.

"We know this is not an easy decision. But we pledge, if elected, to revisit the school bus transportation system and contracts and take effective action to insure that the important job security, wages and benefits of your members are protected within the bidding process, while at the same time are fiscally responsible for taxpayers," they said.

Bloomberg repeatedly has said that the job protections at the heart of the strike are illegal. And, he said, the competitive bidding process for new contracts would save the city millions of dollars.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott echoed that theme in his statement.

“Earlier this week, the City accepted the first bids on school bus contracts in more than 30 years, with the potential to cut costs, transfer the savings to classrooms and secure quality service from certified drivers and matrons for our students," Walcott said. "This open, fair and competitive process is what our school system and city deserve and sets an important standard that we will continue to uphold.”

Parents and students said they would welcome the walkout's end.

Gwendolyn Hamilton was recruited to ferry two of her grandchildren to different schools on Staten Island. "I'll be so glad it's over, you don't know," Hamilton said, flashing a broad smile.

Her grandson Tyshon Ellzy transferred to P.S. 20 on Staten Island from a school in Brooklyn because of the strike. Had he stayed in Brooklyn, the fourth grader would have had to take public transportation on his own. He said he likes his new school but "I'd rather go on the school bus."

Amadou Andiye has been paying someone to take his two children to the Staten Island Community Charter School by city bus each morning because at ages 5 and 7 they're too young to take public transit alone.

"It's not easy," he said, adding that his employer would not have let him arrive late every day. "You can do it one time at your job, but after that, they'll complain."

With reporting from the Associated Press