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Bloomberg’s Strikebreaking Continues to Haunt City’s School Bus System

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Parents are complaining that New York City’s school-bus system is experiencing severe problems with lateness and a lack of drivers on routes that transport children with special needs. They and union officials say the root of the problem is former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s eliminating job-security protections for drivers and matrons after he broke their strike in 2013.

There are normally glitches with transportation at the beginning of the school year, “but this has persisted way past that,” Heather Dailey of Queens, a member of the Citywide Council on Special Education, told LaborPress during a small rally by activist parents outside the Department of Education’s Manhattan offices on Nov. 11. 

Some children are on buses for two or three hours, with no bathroom access; some drivers are doing double or triple the usual number of routes, and some pupils still haven’t been assigned a bus, she says, and parents who call the city Office of Pupil Transportation are put on hold for three hours or more and don’t get through. The problem is more acute, Dailey adds, because many special-education programs, including her 9-year-old son’s, are outside the district where they live.

There is a “huge driver shortage,” says Teamsters Local 917 President Ralph Natale. The union represents about 1,000 drivers and matrons at three Brooklyn-based bus companies.

 The Department of Education contracts with more than 40 bus companies to provide transportation to and from school for an estimated 150,000 children, primarily those with medical disabilities or with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that recommends or requires it. From the late 1970s until 2013, those contracts included “employee protection provisions” (EPPs), under which companies taking over a route had to hire workers in order of seniority, at the same wages and benefits they had in their most recent job.

 Bloomberg eliminated EPPs in 2013, after he broke a strike by more than 8,000 members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181-1061, the union representing the largest share of school-bus workers. There have been some improvements since then, says Natale, but they never met the criteria of pre-strike contracts. 

Drivers average $20-21 an hour, he says, and matrons start at $15-16, slightly more if they’re experienced. In 2013, drivers started at $14 an hour and reached $29.63 after six years on the job. Matrons started at $11 and got $15.93 after six years. But some matrons, Natale adds, work split shifts —three hours in the morning and three in the afternoon, with no pay for the hours in between.

“If you don’t treat them right, what’s their motivation to reach that level of quality?” he asks.

The state legislature passed a bill to restore EPPs in 2016, but then Gov. Andrew Cuomo quietly vetoed it at the end of the year.

“We want the EPP because the drivers have a relationship with the parents and the community,” said Johnnie Stevens of Manhattan. His son, who is on the autism spectrum, is now in college, but took school buses as part of his IEP starting in third grade.

“We want a matron on every bus,” Stevens told LaborPress, as others at the rally chanted, “One, two, three, pay the drivers what they need… Seven, eight, nine, get the kids to school on time.” 

Drivers, he added, “need help. How are you going to drive a bus and serve 40 kids?”

The Department of Education press office said it would respond to e-mailed questions from LaborPress, but never did. ATU Local 1181 did not respond to several messages.

Solutions?

“No more long routes. No mas rutas largas,” the protesters chanted.

Those routes mean that sometimes children have to get up as early as 6 a.m. or don’t get home until as late as 9 p.m., says Milagros Cancel of Comité Timón People & Families NYC Chapter, speaking in Spanish through a translator. She lives in the Bronx and has three children with autism.

“The pandemic has put in everybody’s face what we’ve been dealing with forever,” says Thomas Sheppard, who represents the 32 local Community Education Councils on the city’s 15-member Panel for Educational Policy. “The students who need transportation the most are the ones with the most difficulty getting it.”

One problem, says Natale, is that while the Office of Pupil Transportation does not directly participate in negotiations between the unions and the bus companies, it largely determines the terms on which they negotiate, so it’s an “extra moving part that complicates things.”

OPT, Natale tells LaborPress, says, “here’s the run, this is what we’ll pay you,” and the companies say that means they can’t afford to pay workers any more. 

Another issue, he adds, is that not all distances take the same time to travel. A two-mile straight shot down Queens Boulevard will take a lot less time than traversing Midtown Manhattan or Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue after school.

Any change, Natale believes, “has to be done collectively,” among the unions, the companies, and OPT.

Parent groups such as Parents to Improve School Transportation have worked with other school-bus unions, such as Local 1181, but Natale says he’s never had any reach out to Local 917.

Milagros Cancel has four simple suggestions. First, “that they listen to the parents.” And that the city should also recruit bus drivers, organize the routes better, and have OPT answer the phone.

“If the EPP does not get approved, there’s not going to be a solution, and school transportation is not going to get better,” she adds.

Sheppard invites mayor-elect Eric Adams to meet with parents and “have a real and honest conversation about how to improve bus service. It cannot be more of the same.”

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