News | Morningside Heights

Bus drivers' strike disrupts school system

  • THE WHEELS ON THE BUS | A citywide school bus strike affecting 150,000 students also hit Morningside Heights schools like P.S. 165, pictured here last year.

A strike by the city’s largest school bus drivers’ union forced 150,000 students—including some who go to school in the Morningside Heights area—to find another way to class.

The strike, which began Wednesday, is the union’s first strike in over three decades, the New York Times reported. The union on strike, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, is pushing for employee protection provisions in their new contract, which increase job security for senior or more experienced bus drivers.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is soliciting bids for 1,100 of the city’s 7,700 bus routes in an effort to cut the city’s spending on school busing, but will not include the protection provisions in new contracts with the winning bidders. According to Bloomberg, a recent court ruling made would make doing so illegal.

“We have told the unions in unequivocal terms: Do not walk out on our students,” Bloomberg said in a statement. “A strike would be not only unfair to children and families, it would be totally misguided—because the City cannot legally offer what the unions are demanding.”

But the union has a different interpretation of the court ruling, and has said that inexperienced drivers are less safe.

“When inexperienced drivers take your kids to school, sometimes they never get there,” says the narrator in an ATU advertisement. “Yet Mayor Bloomberg wants to scrap the 47-year agreement that's kept New York City school bus kids safe and let for-profit companies hire inexperienced drivers and bus matrons, to take our young and special-needs kids to school.”

In order to help young New Yorkers get to class, city schools have distributed temporary MetroCards for subways and buses to some families, while reimbursing travel costs for others. In addition, schools will not penalize students who arrive up to two hours late, and strike-related absences will not affect a student’s attendance record.

Even with these measures, Bloomberg said the strike would “necessarily jeopardize the education and safety of the more than 150,000 students who take school buses every single day, in a year when our students have already missed a week or more of school because of Hurricane Sandy.” Many special education students are among those bused.

But some parents say the strikers are justified. Sara Catalinotto, member of Parents to Improve School Transportation and a parent of a student who uses the bus system, said experienced drivers, due to their road sense and understanding of students’ needs, deserve the protection provisions.

“It’s the mayor who’s being stubborn, as far as we’re concerned,” she said. “It’s the people who work on the bus who should get respect.”

Catalinotto added that she felt the strike would stop as soon as Bloomberg recognized the need to include a provision to protect drivers’ jobs in future contracts for bus routes and continue the practice of basing hiring decisions on seniority, which she feels is legal.

At P.S. 165 on 109th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, parents said Wednesday afternoon that they saw both sides of the issue.

“They have a right to strike,” said Juan Pablo Jiménez-Caicedo, a Columbia Spanish lecturer, who was walking his two sons home in the light rain. “Bloomberg was really not working to come to a good settlement with them.”

At the same time, he said, the strike hurts “a lot of families dealing with issues” like special education.

Parent Fatima Ortiz said the bus drivers were striking “because they want the city to do good by them, both for them and their families.” However, she said, “it hurts the kids, too, so there should be a balance.”

While there are usually three large school buses in front of P.S. 165 every day, only one smaller bus for special education students was parked outside. The driver of that bus, who asked not to be named, said she was a member of Teamsters Local 854, which was not on strike.

“We all support them,” she said, referring to Local 1181, but “we can’t strike, it’s in the contract. Ours hasn’t expired yet.”

Casey Tolan contributed reporting.

avantika.kumar@columbiaspectator.com | @avantikaku

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