More than 8,000 New York City school bus drivers and aides went on strike Wednesday morning, leaving some 152,000 students, many disabled, trying to find other ways to get to school.
Schools Chancellor Walcott said the strike started at 6 a.m. About 200 bus drivers and bus matrons, who help kids on and off buses, were assembled on picket lines in Queens.
“The first days will be extremely chaotic,” Walcott told the media. “It hasn’t happened in New York City in over 33 years.”
The Mayor, at a news conference Wednesday, said police were called after pickets blocked gates while trying to keep school buses from leaving their parking areas. Calling the incidents “an outrage,” he said that four bus companies called police.
Local yeshivah parents and their children were impacted in many ways, even without special education needs being taken into account. At least one school was not handing out MetroCards without a letter of request from parents, because the school did not want its students taking public transportation. In many cases, students arrived late.
Overall, school attendance was average, Chancellor Dennis Walcott said Wednesday. Preliminary figures show attendance was 88.5 percent Wednesday, 1 percent less than the average for January. He acknowledged, however, that some students with disabilities had lower attendance numbers.
Union head Michael Cordiello told a news conference that the drivers will strike until Mayor 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.
Peter Curry’s 7-year-old daughter, Maisy, is in a wheelchair and is usually picked up by a bus with a ramp. On Wednesday, he drove her from lower Manhattan to her school in the Chelsea neighborhood.
“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 school, after first dropping off her daughter at Public School 60 about six miles away.
“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.
Those who rely on the buses include 54,000 special-education students and others who live far from schools or transportation. They also include yeshivah students and students who attend specialized school programs outside of their neighborhoods.
Seeking a speedy end to the strike, a consortium of 20 bus companies filed two complaints with the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday accusing the union of waging an unlawful secondary strike and of not bargaining in good faith.
NLRB officials in New York did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
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.
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 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: “This will go however long it goes. We have systems in place to support our parents and students.”
Grades 3-6 Parents Also Get MetroCards
The Office of Pupil Transportation sent out an email to its network of principals and transportation coordinators mid-day on Wednesday saying:
“In order to continue providing the best transportation service for all our students in New York City, and to ease some of the difficulties parents are going through during the bus strike, we are now in the process of shipping parent MetroCards for those students in grades 3 through 6, so that parents can personally and safely bring and take home their children [to and from school].”