More than 8,000 New York City school bus drivers and aides went on strike over job protection Wednesday morning, leaving some 152,000 students, many disabled, trying to find other ways to get to school.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the strike started at 6 a.m. Wednesday. About 200 bus drivers and busmatrons, who help kids on and off buses, were assembled on picket lines in Queens.
"The first days will be extremely chaotic," Walcott told 1010 WINS radio. "It hasn't happened in New York City in over 33 years."
Union head Michael Cordiello told a news conference that the drivers will strike until Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city agree to put a job security clause back into their contract.
"I came to urge the mayor to resolve this strike," said Cordiello, president of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. "It is within his power to do so."
Parents used subways, carpools and other alternatives to get their children to school, hitting slippery roads as sleet turned to rain around the city and temperatures were at or above freezing.
"It means transferring her to the car, breaking down the wheelchair, getting here, setting up the wheelchair, transferring her from the car, when normally she would just wheel right into the school bus," Curry said. "She's on oxygen. There's a lot of equipment that has to be moved and transferred also."
On Staten Island, Tangaline Whiten was more than 45 minutes late delivering her second-grade son to Staten Island Community Charter School, after first dropping off her daughter at Public School 60 about six miles away.
She said the distance and the extra traffic on the road made the prospect of a long strike upsetting, because it means her son would be consistently late. If the strike lasts, she said she'll consider carpooling.
"Most of the parents where I'm at are working parents, so they're finding it difficult to transport their kids, and especially to pick them up," Whiten said. "I'm just fortunate that I'm a stay-at-home mom."
Wednesday's walkout was by the largest bus drivers' union; some bus routes served by other unions were operating. The city Department of Education said approximately 3,000 bus routes out of 7,700 total were running.
Most of the city's roughly 1.1 million public school students take public transportation or walk to school.
Those who rely on the buses include 54,000 special education students and others who live far from schools or transportation. They also include students who attend specialized school programs outside of their neighborhoods.
The city has put its contracts with private bus companies up for bid, aiming to cut costs. Local 1181 says drivers could suddenly lose their jobs when contracts expire in June.
In an industrial part of Queens' Ridgewood neighborhood, several dozen union members showed up to stand in the cold rain in front of the Amboy Bus Company.
"Union! Power!" they chanted, pumping their fists into the air.
Driver Edwin Beniquez said Bloomberg "wants to put out these bids to pay less, below living wages, but he'll end up with less experienced drivers."
The city planned to distribute transit cards to students who can take buses and subways and to reimburse parents who would have to drive or take taxis.
The union announced Monday it would strike amid a complicated dispute.
The city doesn't directly hire the bus drivers and matrons, who work for private companies that have city contracts. The workers make an average of about $35,000 a year, with a driver starting at $14 an hour and potentially making as much as $29 an hour over time, according to Cordiello.
Bloomberg has said the city must seek competitive bids to save money.
The union sought job protections for current drivers in the new contracts. The city said that the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has barred it from including such provisions because of competitive bidding laws; the union said that's not so.
Asked if the city is prepared to go as long as the last school bus strike, which lasted 14 weeks in 1979, Walcott said on WINS Radio: "This will go however long it goes. We have systems in place to support our parents and students."
The contracts expire June 30.