Unions, parents support NYC school bus workers

Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 has been on strike since Jan. 16 against a plan by billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his billionaire supporters in the 1% to strip union protection from New York City school bus drivers and matrons.

It’s a simple plan. New contracts that are up for bid Feb. 12 won’t have an “Employee Protection Provision.” This means, according to the New York State AFL-CIO, that “For the first time in 30 years, the mayor has removed a requirement that keeps the most qualified, experienced and skilled drivers on the job.” The bus contractors could hire anybody with the proper licenses, disregarding seniority.

Every major public service union in New York — the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees DC37, United Federation of Teachers, Communication Workers, Teamsters, Professional Staff Congress — has  been working under an “expired” contract in Bloomberg’s last term. That means most of their members haven’t had a raise.

Steelworkers Local 8751, which represents the school bus drivers and matrons in Boston, has had an EPP since a five-and-a-half-week strike in 1991. It is in strong solidarity with the New York bus drivers’ union because its EPP would be much more easily challenged if ATU 1181 loses. Not only did USW 8751 make a $500 contribution to the strike fund, but it’s sending a busload of supporters to New York to join the picket lines on Saturday, Feb. 2.

Parents to Improve School Transportation (PIST), a two-year-old parents’ advocacy group, is supporting the drivers and their union.  PIST refuses to let Bloomberg “throw our children under the bus.”

They advise parents: “For safety’s sake, DO NOT hand your child over to a bus attendant/matron unless that person can produce Office of Pupil Transportation ID with an effective date before the strike began and a bar code on the back.”

PIST is especially upset at a Department of Education memo, dated Jan. 23, that lets bus companies use two drivers to replace a matron or attendant for children with special needs.

“This approach places the children in danger and the city in violation of its obligations to provide adequate ‘related services’ that maximize access to public education under various federal statutes,” said Sara Catalinotto, a founder of PIST and mother of a student who relies on special transportation.

“The ID card and the memo show that, contrary to the protests of the mayor and school chancellor, the DOE is the employer of the school bus drivers. If the city means to do right by our children, Mr. Bloomberg must come to the bargaining table and negotiate with the union,” Catalinotto said.

Bloomberg is pretending that the city he runs is not involved. Even though ATU 1181 is meeting on Jan. 28 with the bus companies at Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s official residence, the mayor and his administration won’t be present.

In answer to Bloomberg’s refusal to bargain, PIST is calling for car caravans from all the union picket sites to Bloomberg’s house at 17 E. 79th Street on Feb. 2 from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. so the school bus drivers from Boston can confront him directly.

The last time ATU 1181 struck was in 1979 for three months. New York City was awash then with labor militancy. But different times and a different labor movement don’t mean that solidarity and struggle can’t win a decent contract the workers — and the children — need.

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