The strike by 8,800 drivers, attendants and mechanics began Jan. 16. Arrayed against the strikers are the New York City government, the bus company owners, and the big-business press. The New York Daily News and New York Post have painted the strikers as overpaid workers who are interfering with students’ education, especially those with special needs.
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 launched the strike after city officials announced they were putting 1,100 school bus routes up for bid without Employee Protection Provisions, which have been in place for 34 years. The remaining 6,600 routes with private bus companies have not yet expired.
Under the provisions, regardless of what company wins a particular bus route, any laid-off workers have to be hired by seniority at their previous wages and benefits before new workers can be taken on.
City officials now claim the protection provisions are “illegal” and have refused to take part in negotiations between the union and the bus company owners.
Strike supporters at the action included small contingents from the United Federation of Teachers, Transport Workers Local 100, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1500 and Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ. The action was cosponsored by the New York State AFL-CIO and the New York City Central Labor Council.
Two days before the rally New York City Chancellor of Education Dennis Walcott complained that under the Employee Protection Provisions company owners do “not have a say in who gets hired or how much they are paid.” He made it clear that city officials want the bus owners to drive down wages.
Walcott and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have ignored the offer by officials of Local 1181 to suspend the strike if city officials would suspend the route bids and join negotiations. Instead, on Feb. 11 they opened bidding and said they would soon reassign the routes.
“I’m 56 years old,” bus driver Yoselyn Noesi told the Militant as she marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. “With so much unemployment and at my age, if they get rid of the protections what other job could I get? What if they sell the company or make themselves go bankrupt or give the route to another company?”
Like many workers, driver Victor Bautista says he didn’t expect a strike. “But we’re willing to stay on strike as long as we have to.”
Strike faces challengesThe bus owners have been stepping up the pressure. Medical insurance coverage for strikers and their families was cut off as of Feb. 1. Three bus companies have filed a lawsuit demanding that the Employee Protection Provisions be removed from all existing contracts.
In addition to a small minority of ATU members, workers from other unions and nonunion bus companies have been crossing the picket line. According to the Department of Education, as of Feb. 7, 100 percent of pre-kindergarten, 13 percent of general education, and 41 percent of special education routes are running.
Members of Teamsters Local 854, which represents 1,000 school bus workers, are working, as are two so-called independent unions—United Craft and Industrial Workers Union Local 91 and United Service Workers Union Local 335.
“Where I work the drivers are in Local 854 and they’re not honoring the picket lines,” said Felicia Persaud, a bus attendant. “We tried to talk to them, but the company wouldn’t let us on the property. … The company told them they would be fired if they didn’t come to work.”
Several strikers at the rally said few or no ATU members have crossed the picket line where they work. Persaud said about 30 of the 160 attendants where she works have returned to their job.
Several Democratic Party officials have called on Bloomberg to negotiate with the union. But none of them have backed demands to keep the Employee Protection Provisions. The mayor should sit with the union “and negotiate in good faith,” said City Comptroller John Liu in a statement. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has supported Local 1181’s call for a “cooling off period” that “would bring an immediate end to the school bus strike.”
New York Post columnist and former Democratic Party Assemblyman Michael Benjamin is hoping the strikers will give up. “If the city’s lucky,” he writes in a Feb. 12 column, the mayor “will use similar gambits to tackle some of the much larger union-benefit issues that are consuming ever-larger chunks of the municipal budget.”
“The chancellor and Bloomberg speak about saving money, but they don’t talk about what will happen to us,” said Noesi. “Pretty soon there’ll just be rich and poor in this city and no middle class.”
“I think all the unions should be in this together,” she said. “If they do this to us, they will do it to everybody.”
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On the Picket Line
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