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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.

By Staff writer / January 18, 2013

School bus attendants and their supporters walk a picket line near a bus depot in New York, Thursday.

Seth Wenig/AP

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The New York City school bus strike is now in its third day – pitting the union’s concerns over job security and bus safety against the city’s need to bring down bus costs that are the highest in the nation.

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It’s also another indication – along with the recent teacher strike in Chicago and the fights over union rights in Wisconsin and elsewhere – that unions nationwide are increasingly feeling “their backs are to the wall,” says Ed Ott, a distinguished lecturer in labor studies at the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute and the former head of the New York City Labor Council.

“Strikes were always considered the ultimate weapon, and you don’t use them lightly,” he says. “For this generation of union leaders, [the use of strikes] is a clear indication of the pressures they are feeling.”

About 152,000 students – 11 percent of public school students in New York – rely on school buses, which cover 7,700 routes. Forty percent of the buses were running Wednesday, the city said, because they are not driven by members of the striking Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181.

Other bused students have had to find alternative ways to school since Wednesday. The city has been providing metro cards and reimbursing families for driving or sending students in taxis, but that hasn’t quelled the frustrations of some parents who have had their work schedules disrupted. Some parents, on the other hand, support the strikers.

Meanwhile, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has had a series of fights with the teachers union, and on Friday the city and the union blamed each other for missing the state’s midnight Thursday deadline to come up with a new teacher evaluation plan, putting the schools at risk of losing up to $450 million.

The nationwide attention that strikes, rooted in very local fights, tend to receive now is another indication of how unions have weakened in recent decades. “It’s sad that it’s seen as a novelty,” says Zev Eigen, associate professor of law at Northwestern University. It also means that unions have to pick their fights carefully, he says, because public sympathy will go down if a strike is not tied to a substantial issue of fairness.

At the heart of the bus strike is a dispute over the bidding process for a bus contract to replace one due to expire in June.

The school district currently spends an average of $6,900 per year for each bused student, more than double the cost of the next most expensive district of Los Angeles.

“It is just irrational for us to keep spending this amount of money unless there’s no alternative, and we’re going to find out whether there’s an alternative by putting the contracts out to bid,” said Mayor Bloomberg Wednesday.

New York City Schools already got new contracts for pre-K busing, and officials say that will save $95 million over five years. The current bid under dispute is for 1,100 routes that serve K-12 students with disabilities, but the union is striking beyond those routes.

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