New York school bus strike: sign of national pressure on unions (+video)
While New York City is seeking to bring down its highest-in-the-nation school busing costs by putting the contract out to bid, the union is demanding that drivers and matrons be protected.
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In its call for bids, the city did not include an employee protection provision (EPP), which calls for any new contractor to place at the top of its hiring list the current drivers and bus matrons (whether union members or not) based on seniority. The EPP also covers wages and benefits (the pension for union members is private).Skip to next paragraph
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Such provisions have been in place since the settlement of the last major bus strike in the city in 1979, the union argues, and are essential for ensuring that experienced drivers and matrons are taking care of the students.
“Special-education students especially require the experience that these drivers and matrons provide – they live in the communities they serve, and know their students and families,” says Maggie McKeon, a spokesperson on behalf of Local 1181.
The city argues that the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, bars it from including EPPs in its bid process. The union reads the court decision differently, arguing that the city does have discretion because that ruling applied specifically to pre-K busing, a smaller segment of overall busing that hasn’t traditionally included EPPs in its contracts.
Without the EPPS, the call for bids “almost demands lower wages … and you get what you pay for,” says Mr. Ott. For at least four or five years, he predicts, less expensive, and therefore less experienced, drivers and matrons would be playing catch-up. According to the union, the average salary for the drivers and matrons is $35,000.
But others predict that a new bus company would be likely to hire the experienced local workers, even without the EPP.
“In most cases, when a new bus contractor wins a bid, they are smarter to hire the current drivers [who have] passed the difficult state licensing [and are] familiar with the route and the children,” says John Spang, assistant superintendent for finance and operations at the Avon Public Schools.
It does make sense to rehire current drivers, and even if new drivers are hired, state and local requirements are designed to ensure safety, says Ryan Gray, editor of School Transportation News based in Torrance, Calif. “They’re not just plucked off the street and put on a bus.”
But unions are feeling pressured, especially since the consolidation of the school bus industry around 2005, and strikes are becoming more common when private contractors are involved, Mr. Gray says. The bus companies “say they are open to being union shops, but that’s not necessarily the case,” he says.
New York City’s desire to cut costs is also embedded in a statewide examination of education reform ideas, including proposals to bring down the highest school transportation costs in the nation.
On average, the state spent $1,100 per student on all transportation costs in 2010, compared with a US average of $459, according to a December report by the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a civic organization trying to improve finances and services in state and city governments in New York.
New York City’s overall transportation costs per pupil were slightly lower than the state’s, at $1,033, largely because most students can walk or take the metro to school. The busing figures are much higher, largely because they include expensive supports for transporting special-needs students.
In both the state and New York City, “there are ways [bus] routes can be made more efficient,” so that fewer buses are needed, and that’s one reason the union is concerned about new bids, says Elizabeth Lynam, the CBC’s director of state studies.