|School bus drivers, mechanics and matrons picket in Bronx, N.Y., Jan. 16, first day of strike.|
The unionists face a propaganda firestorm from city politicians and media backers, attacking them for “striking against the children” and “holding children hostage” at the expense of city taxpayers.
Irma Burgos has worked as a driver for students with special needs for 13 years. “We need EPP, employee protection, to secure our jobs,” she told the Militant as she picketed alongside more than 100 other unionists at the Atlantic Express bus terminal near Grand Concourse and 138th Street in the Bronx. “Otherwise if the company got sold, we could lose everything—our seniority, all our years of work. Once they get us, they can go after other workers.”
The Employee Protection Provisions require any bus company that wins a new contract with the city to hire employees from companies that lose their contracts in order of seniority, at the same rate of pay and with pension benefits intact.
The union won the provisions, which some workers call the master list, after a 13-week strike in 1979. Since then, the city has tried numerous times to target workers’ job security. In 1995 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani made clear he wanted to break the lifetime job guarantees for school bus drivers and campaigned for the school board to take on the union.
The New York Department of Education contracts school bus service to private companies. Since the unions’ strike victory in 1979, contract bids have required company bosses to live by the EPP.
Opponents of the workers argue that since they don’t work for the city, they can’t go on strike. Bloomberg and his media boosters claim a state Appeals Court ruling last year bars the city from continuing to include EPP in its bids.
The union says the ruling did not cover the routes the city is putting up for bid.
“For me, having the master list made all the difference,” said Cathy Roberti, a driver for six years, as she walked the picket line with some 50 other workers at the bus barn at Hermany Avenue in the Bronx.
“I worked for one company for six years,” she explained. “Last April, they lost my run. I was laid off until October. Then my name came to the top of the seniority list and I started work here. I kept the same pay, my seniority, my benefits. Without the master pick, it’s like you’d never have a permanent job.”
“They are just trying to get rid of the master pick so they can keep starting new people at minimum wage,” Julie Sanchez added. She has worked as a matron for 13 years. Her job is to escort the kids and guarantee their safety.
More than 150,000 public and parochial school students get yellow bus service daily. City officials and the capitalist media have pinned blame on the unionists for inconveniences that many parents will face during the dispute and play up the 54,000 school bus riders who are disabled with special needs.
“The union drivers are striking against our children, plain and simple,” schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said, according to the Wall Street Journal Jan 16. The New York Post editorial the same day smeared the strike as mafia-related, arguing the workers’ fight to protect their jobs was “but another form of extortion.”
In another edit the day before, the Post race-baited the strike, arguing that the union and its supporters “continually work against the best interests of students of color.”
On the morning the strike started, Bloomberg said on Fox 5 TV that the city won’t back down. “There’s only a certain amount of money. I’m not going to move money away from police and worry about safety in the streets to pay bus drivers.”
In an article in New York Sun Jan. 14, Ira Stoll hailed Bloomberg as another Scott Walker, the Wisconsin governor who took on the public employees’ unions in that state.
“He tries to make it sound like we’re making so much money,” said Daniel Colón, a driver for 11 years, speaking with the Militant outside the bus barn at Hunts Point in the Bronx. “We’re guaranteed pay for 40 hours a week. But when we do field trips [to a museum or a recreation center], we can work 10 hours a day. We still just get paid for eight.”
Workers on the picket lines say the city is going after the 40-hour week and want more part-time workers. “They want to have people work just four hours a day,” Julie Sanchez said.
The school bus companies in a statement called the strike unlawful and said they will immediately file unfair labor practice charges and civil lawsuits.
“We have begun hiring replacement workers, but getting drivers certified is a lengthy process. We don’t have anybody for tomorrow,” Carolyn Daly, spokesperson for the New York City Bus Company Coalition, told the Wall Street Journal Jan. 15.
Dan Fein, Deborah Liatos, Sara Lobman and Lea Sherman contributed to this article.