The New York City government is struggling to find alternative transportation for upwards of 152,000 school children, after school bus drivers walked off the job on Wednesday morning. Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, which represents public school bus drivers, says the strike is in response to a city cost-saving plan which would endanger its 8,800 workers' job security.
The point of contention is the Department of Education's plan to reopen, for the first time since 1979, serious bidding for contracts with private bus companies. As Radio Dispatch host Molly Knefel explains, current school transportation contracts include “Employment Protection Provisions" (EPPs), which "ensured job security for senior workers, even if the city changed bus companies—meaning that experienced drivers were rehired year after year." However, the new Department of Education policy would give those contracts to the "lowest responsible bidder," regardless of whether or not they offered their workers any job security.
According to Knefel, an after-school drama teacher, maintaining drivers' job security is important for the health and safety of the students—particularly special needs students:
It matters because how we treat those who care for certain children reflects how we value those children. It creates a system in which workers entrusted to be responsible for a child's safety are utterly replaceable in the name of protecting the bottom line. Bus drivers and matrons greet children in the morning and return them home in the afternoon and students with disabilities require specific knowledge, care and attention. Routine and stability are important to all children, but especially so to certain populations of special-needs children, including those with autism or emotional/behavioral disorders.
But the city, which faces serious budget woes, says its hands are tied. "Let me be clear: the union's decision to strike has nothing to do with safety and everything to do with job protections that the City legally cannot include in its bus contracts," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a statement.
Speaking to The New York Times, union lawyer Richard N. Gilberg disputed Bloomberg's claim about bus contracts. “There has never been a court ruling that the employee protection provisions are, in all cases, illegal,” he said, evidently referring to a June 2011 Court of Appeals ruling which said the Department of Education could not require contractors to implement "anti-competitive" EPPs.
There's some truth to Mayor Bloomberg's argument, according to New York labor lawyer Stuart Lichten. It's just not the whole truth.
"If [city officials] are saying that they can't keep the exact same provision, they're probably right," said Lichten. "But if they're saying they can't work to make sure these employees are protected, with just a little bit of imagination, I think they're wrong."
According to the ruling, said Lichten, "any procedure having an anti-competitive effect on the bidding process can only be justified on the basis of saving the public money, or causing the contract to be performed without disruption." While EPPs might not meet that standard, other rules which protect current bus drivers might.
For example, "they could require that the bus drivers have certain amounts of experience or certain qualifications, like maybe licenses." Such rules, said Lichten, could be justified "on the grounds that maybe it doesn't lower costs, but it certainly prevents disruption of service."
The city is currently making adjustments to accommodate students until the strike is resolved, issuing free MetroCards to eligible students, excusing tardiness and reimbursing some parents for the cost of transporting their children.