New York school bus strike: sign of national pressure on unions

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.

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

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.

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.

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).

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.

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