City Can (But Won’t) Play Its Part in Bus Strike


We’re damn-near a month into the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181’s bus-driver and matron strike, and the city is still pretending like it doesn’t have everything to do with why this mess continues to drag-on.

The union, politicians and parents are begging the city to at least come to the table and consider negotiating an agreement with the striking workforce. But, in case they haven’t made it clear enough, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott are stubbornly sticking to their argument that the city cannot legally implement a new Employee Protection Provision for drivers and matrons when their contract expires in June.

Two weeks ago the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the city, along with bus companies, are the primary employers of the union. But apparently the city doesn’t really care what the NLRB thinks.

“I’ve said it over and over again. I think it’s the role between companies and the union, and I’m not changing that,” Walcott testified during a joint-committee city council hearing on Friday. “We have a responsibility based on our legal interpretation and based on what we feel is the right thing — not to include the EPP.”

The problem with the chancellor’s stance is that the city’s “legal interpretation” seems rather narrow, and based on the numbers, it hardly seems like the “right thing” to do.

The 2011 New York State Court of Appeals decision that the city has handcuffed itself to, concluded:

“[The Department of Education] has not proven that the EPPs are designed to save pubic money, encourage robust competition, or prevent favoritism.”

The union argues that the city did a half-assed job in its argument. The city was supposedly fighting to get EPP protections for drivers and matrons hired to provide Pre-K and early-intervention busing services, a contract separate from the general-education and special-education contract being fought over now.

The contract for Pre-K and early-Intervention busing services never included an EPP for its roughly 325-drivers and matrons. Bus companies sued the city for attempting to add an EPP to the contract for the first time.

Richard Gilberg, a lawyer for Local 1181, says the city rejected the union’s offer to become an enjoining member in the lawsuit, and rejected its offer to help argue the case. Gilberg contends that the city should have pointed to its long history of success in adding EPPs to bus contracts for general-education and special-needs services.

“[Agreements] like [EPPS] are facially anti-competitive. So there will be a heightened scrutiny standard applied,” Gilberg said during Friday’s hearing. “[But the standards] won’t be hard to meet, because [the DOE has] a 50-year history that [it] could rely on of avoiding labor disputes and safely transporting kids without having a high turnover, low-wage workforce.”

Oddly though, the city declined to submit to the court any evidence from its files or a 1995 study commissioned by former mayor Rudy Giuliani, which proved the value of EPPs.

“No one can show me where it says that [an] EPP is illegal.” Committee on Education chairman Robert Jackson said. “I’m very disappointed [that] you and the mayor [are] adamant about the fact that you’re not involved in this. I’m very disappointed because over a 100,000 students are being negatively impacted and their families.”

It would appear that the city could require bus companies to add some sort of legal employee protection in the new request-for-bid contract-system. So, that fact that it insists on not even negotiating is rather ridiculous.

It’s rather ridiculous considering that the Fiscal Policy Institute estimates the average salary of a unionized bus driver to be about $42,500/year, and $26,000/year for matrons. The FPI estimates that non-unionized workers would earn 1/3 of those wages without an EPP — which amounts to about $17,000 – $25,000/year in wages annually. Many of them would be without health benefits and pensions.

It’s not the worker salary that’s driving the costs of transportation as the Bloomberg administration has made it seem. The $1.1 billion price-tag for busing services derives primarily from a growing special-needs population and an expansion of services.

“The data are crystal clear. New York City pupil for transportation costs are rising because the DOE is required to provide, and is choosing to provide, a much greater range of transportation services,” James Parrot of the FPI said. “The union is not seeking to thwart competition among bus companies. It is always seeking to avert a race to the bottom in wages and working conditions.”

Carin van der Donk, a Manhattan mother of a son with special needs, argued that it’s crucial that bus drivers and matrons have experience and worries that if their pay gets cut, then service will suffer.

“The idea that [they] would make even less than [they’re] making now horrifies me,” van der Donk said. “How can I expect people to take care of my children, to be respectful towards my children, if they’re not being respected by society?”

As the city continues to absolve itself from any responsibility for the strike, parents will have to continue to scramble to find a way to school, and those fat-cat workers will have to live on reduced pay and without any benefits in order to preserve their protections.

“We’re not making no money, we’re just living from paycheck to paycheck — with the EPP,” Thirley Cummings, a 26-year veteran bus driver with two kids and a niece he’s putting through college, told the Voice. “We are living on the brink of poverty. [Why would] you take us and put us below-poverty level?”