The New York City schools chancellor on Sunday accused school bus drivers of treating students irresponsibly by threatening to strike and forcing more than 152,000 students to find alternative ways to get to class. The strike could occur as early as Monday; a date has not been set.
“A strike would affect our most vulnerable students,” Chancellor Dennis Walcott told a news conference at the Manhattan headquarters of the Department of Education.
The students who use the yellow school buses include 54,000 with disabilities, the chancellor said, and the “union should stop playing games, issuing threats of striking” but not saying which day it might happen.
“The union has said, ‘Well, maybe on Monday, well, maybe Wednesday; maybe we’ll do it, maybe we won’t do it,’” Walcott said. “We can’t allow that to happen.”
“Parents rely on yellow school bus service to safely transport their children to and from school every day. A bus strike would make life difficult for hundreds of thousands of parents,” said Councilman David G. Greenfield (D-Brooklyn). “Given everything New York’s families have gone through this school year, including disruptions due to Hurricane Sandy, the last thing parents should have to worry about is how their child will get to school. The city and union must find a way to avert a strike and keep these buses on the roads. Anything less is completely unacceptable.”
Officials of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union say they’re trying to avert a strike. But as Walcott spoke inside, thousands of drivers and their supporters packed City Hall Park for a boisterous rally.
The city is looking to cut transportation costs and has put bus contracts up for bid. The union is decrying the lack of employee protections in the bids, saying many current drivers could suddenly lose their jobs once their contracts are up in June.
A decision on the new bids is to be made in May, city officials said.
“They’re trying to replace us with inexperienced drivers working for new companies for minimum wage,” said Samuel Rivera, 38, who’s been driving for almost a dozen years.
In response to the potential for a strike, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott have said the City will consider contingency plans, including issuing MetroCards to the impacted children, or reimbursing parents for part of the cost of driving the students to school. While drivers have continued working as negotiations continue, parents and students are now facing the real threat of a strike occurring as soon as Monday morning.
The union argues that child safety is at stake if less experienced drivers are hired for lower wages.
Walcott countered that bids include stringent safety requirements for the drivers — as well as savings that could be used for education. He said NY has not used significant competitive bidding for new yellow bus contracts since 1979, resulting in a $6,900 annual busing cost per child — compared with $3,124 in Los Angeles.
A strike would impact all students who use the buses, including parochial and private schools.
“The bus union must respect parents enough to give them ample notice before a strike,” said Councilman Greenfield. “It would be a slap in the face to the hardworking parents of New York City to stop yellow bus service without giving parents the opportunity to make alternate arrangements. More importantly, both sides must continue working on behalf of the 152, 000 students and their families to ensure that a strike does not come to pass.”
New York City has 1.1 million students in its school district.