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Workers, parents defend employee protection for school transport

Published Aug 6, 2011 8:18 PM

Amalgamated Transportation Local 1181-1061 and Teamsters Local 854, representing drivers, escorts and mechanics in the New York City school bus system, are fighting to defend and expand Employee Protection Provisions.

EPPs ensure that when the employer — in this case, the New York City Department of Education, which is controlled by billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg — sets up new contracts for bus routes, it must give priority to current union members and must respect seniority. This process is repeated before each school year, before summer sessions and whenever circumstances require.

These provisions have been applied to routes transporting kindergarten through 12th grade students since 1979 after a major strike. State bill A3127-A, which is now on New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desk, would extend EPPs to routes for toddlers with disabilities who receive early intervention services outside the home and for pre-kindergarteners.

On July 25, ATU and Teamsters members rallied outside a meeting of the bus companies that are bidding on these routes for the coming school year. The gathering was joined by delegations from Transport Workers Local 100, Teamsters Local 210 and Parents to Improve School Transportation. Parents of children who use the school buses and an organizer of school bus workers north of New York City also attended. Unionists distributed flyers to generate a campaign of phone calls to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott in support of EPPs.

Parents vs. mayor on EPPs

School bus advocates from parent groups such as PIST and Community Education Councils 31 and 75 have written letters urging Cuomo to approve the EPPs bill. The letters emphasize that the youngest, most vulnerable children deserve qualified, trained and experienced drivers and escorts and that decisions should not be made solely on which company is the lowest bidder.

On July 11, Bloomberg sent Cuomo a memo urging him to veto A3127-A so that the NYC Department of Education can exercise “its own business judgment.” He cited a court ruling supporting his position. The governor has until Aug. 3 to take action.

During this spring’s struggle over the NYC budget, the mayor publicly tried to undo contractual seniority and job security for teachers. Now he is behind the scenes trying to deprive another workforce — one that is vital to public education, particularly to special education — of the same rights.

Thousands of union bus workers from the Haitian and other working-class communities, and the parents and guardians of the 150,000 children they serve, have a basis for unity in light of recent negative developments in school transportation.

Bus rights needed to save lives, jobs

Since September, when the DOE eliminated all busing of general education seventh and eighth graders in Staten Island, there have been several traffic accidents involving pre-teens walking to school on pedestrian-unfriendly streets. Tragically, the worst fears of the community happened on June 28 when former school bus rider 13-year-old Aniya Williams lost her life in one such accident.

City courts have twice ruled against a class action suit that sought to restore middle-school busing. The Staten Island Advance reported last fall that Matthew Berlin, director of DOE’s Office of Pupil Transportation, testified that public funds should not be used to bus these children “even if it costs a dollar.” (silive.com, Sept. 20, 2010) He used maps with an incorrect scale to claim that typical distances to school are not so far.

Outraged Staten Islanders and supporters are pressing for a state law before anyone else gets hurt — A2988-A, renamed Aniya’s Law — to guarantee busing through eighth grade in all school districts of a certain size and those with scarce public transportation.

Another nasty outcome of the S.I. busing cutback is that USA United Fleet, a yellow bus company based there, recently declared bankruptcy and laid off 1,100 ATU members.

Further, during summer school, which is mandated for many special needs students, bus workers and children suffer together due to a lack of or inadequate air conditioning on many vehicles. This is even worse on long routes that were designed to “cut costs.”

It’s important to note that Northeast busing giant Atlantic Express wins a large share of local contract bids but does not have the equipment to keep riders cool, according to a former AE shop steward.

Meanwhile, NY City Council budget crafters, such as Speaker Christine Quinn, boasted about very recent decreases in busing expenses, calling them “efficiencies” and “alternative cuts” to prevent teacher layoffs.

Yet the public schools are bracing for large class sizes in the fall due to other staffing shortages that will lower the quality of education.

A healthier alternative would be to cut the $15 billion interest payments to the banks and the $27 million no-bid DOE contracts to Bloomberg’s corporate friends, including the reactionary Murdoch News.

Then the city should implement the “School Bus Bill of Rights,” which was recently drafted by PIST and ATU 1181-1061 leaders. The solutions proposed here could save and improve the lives, education and jobs of bus riders, bus workers and their families.

For more information and sources, see www.pistnyc.org. To support the EPP, call Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott at 718-935-2000.

The writer is a founder of PIST.