February 12, 2013
By Barbara Kestenbaum
As many New Yorkers know, on January 16, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) called a strike of over 8,800 school bus drivers and matrons. The union is fighting to safeguard one of the most important elements in today’s uncertain economy: their members’ jobs.
As a retired member of DC-37, who worked in the Department of Education as a placement officer for Hard of Hearing/Visually Impaired Students in Manhattan, I have much respect and appreciation for the work that Local 1181 members do. They are skilled, qualified men and women who are dedicated to the care and security of more than 152,000 students, including 52,000 with special needs. It is shameful that these workers, some with as much as 30 years’ experience, could lose their jobs because the city administration wants to invite bids for school bus service without including the Employee Protection Provision (EPP), which ensures job security for senior workers, and was fought for and won during the last strike more than 30 years ago.
Recently I marched in solidarity with hundreds of people, including members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees DC37, Local 32BJ SEIU, Communication Workers, Teamsters, Steelworkers Local 8751—which represents the school bus drivers and matrons in Boston—and parents throughout the city concerned for their children’s well-being. There were signs including “Stop Bullying the Middle Class!,” and a shout from a frustrated striker, “We’re treated like criminals because we get paid fairly decent wages!”
Talking with these men and women affected me very much. I learned that bus drivers earn $43,900 after three years and matrons $23,000. Their jobs are demanding and highly responsible, and they earn every penny of these wages. These are the hard-working people that the city administration wants to replace with minimum-wage workers with no benefits.
Luis Torres, who has worked for 16 years as a bus driver, said about the company he works for:
They just stopped our health insurance. The owners think we’re getting paid too much and they’re making too little profit. They want to get rid of the top paid workers, so they harass them into quitting. It takes a year to get certified and they are hiring replacements with only a day’s training.
Azucena Soto, who has worked as a matron for 18 years, said, “I love these kids and treat them as if they were my own. All we ask in return is fairness — job and pension security.” Of course, she wants this. Any person would, and it’s what’s deserved!
Reading an issue of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, titled “Unions and Beauty,” I was struck by how much of what is happening in this strike is explained by Editor Ellen Reiss, who writes:
There has been a steady effort to undo all that unions achieved. There has been a bringing back of low wages, long hours, sweatshops. Increasingly, the jobs of America are miserably paying ones. When a person loses his $16-an-hour union job and must work instead for $7 an hour, he should know he’s doing so to help keep the profit system afloat, to have some rich persons continue getting money. That is why he is coming home bone-tired from working two jobs, while his children don’t get the kind of food he’d like to give them….
Most people have to become poorer so a small number of people can make large profits. And the question Americans now have to answer is one I have asked here before: What should be sacrificed—decent jobs for millions of Americans; or profits of individuals who didn’t earn them, so that millions of people can have decent, dignified lives? There can no longer be both. Another question is: If no one were making personal profit from the work of others, and everyone were making a good living and feeling expressed—would that be good? Would that be beautiful? ethical? truly American? The answer is yes!
I know personally and gratefully what it means to retire with dignity because one has a pension and healthcare. And this should be the right of everyone. These drivers and matrons are fighting for their rights, and the rights of all working men and women who want what they do to be valued and respected. I am proud to stand with them now, and however long it takes to bring about this simple justice!