Jan. 16 (Bloomberg) -- New York school bus drivers and matrons went on strike for the first time in 34 years, forcing tens of thousands of the city’s 1.35 million public and parochial students to find other ways to get to class.
The largest U.S. school system offered free MetroCards to pay subway and bus fares for affected students as well as for parents of preschoolers and those with special needs. Parents also will be reimbursed if they need to drive or hire a car, officials said. Most New York students walk or use mass transit to get to class.
About 39 percent, or 3,000, of the city’s 7,700 yellow school bus routes remained covered by operators whose drivers and matrons aren’t represented by Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which called the strike, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said. Officials said they couldn’t provide a precise of number of students affected. About 152,000 public and private school students receive bus service.
“The union is striking against our children,” Schools Chancellor Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said today in an interview on Fox 5 television. “It’s going to be traumatic.”
The drivers and matrons, who are employed by companies, stopped working to protest the city’s refusal to guarantee jobs based on seniority as it seeks bids on new contracts for 1,100 routes serving 22,500 special-needs children. Matrons are women who escort students from buses to schools.
The current agreements expire June 30. About 54,000 of the students affected by the walkout are disabled, while 41,000 attend parochial schools.
Winnie da Silva, 42, a self-employed business consultant, said she had no problem taking the subway with her daughters 30 blocks from their home in Harlem to P.S. 166, their elementary school at 89th Street near Columbus Avenue.
“We made our subway connections right away, and it went smoothly,” she said in an interview. “Tomorrow it will be more difficult because my husband and I each have early morning meetings, so we will drop the kids off early with a friend who will walk them to school.”
Melody Woolford, 38, an executive with a nonprofit who lives on the Upper West Side, said her 6-year-old son made it to his first-grade class at Hunter College Elementary School with help from a neighbor whose child attends the same school.
“The rainy day added a little more drama,” she said in an e-mail. “It’s really tough for those parents who have demanding or nonflexible jobs. I hope it gets resolved soon.”
In the morning, picketers supporting the strike blocked gates at four garages to prevent buses operated by nonunion drivers from leaving, Bloomberg said at a City Hall news conference. Police were called to stop the tactics without making arrests, the mayor said.
Union attorney Richard Gilberg and its spokeswoman, Maggie McKeon, didn’t answer e-mailed requests for comment about the incident.
New York’s busing costs have skyrocketed to $1.1 billion a year from $100 million in 1979, with the city spending an average of $6,900 per bused child, more than any district in the country, Bloomberg said at a news briefing.
Drivers earn about $14 an hour, rising to $29 an hour after six years, and average about $38,000 a year, said Michael Cordiello, president of Local 1181. Changes in school locations and rules have increased the number of routes to about 7,700 from 2,000 in 1979, he said.
Bloomberg has cited a 2011 decision by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest tribunal, that he said prohibits the city from offering job security to bus drivers who aren’t city employees. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“The union wants us to guarantee that anybody that comes in and gets those contracts gives them the same jobs at the same salary with the same seniority,” Bloomberg said on Fox 5 today. “We’ve had 12 different judges rule that is illegal. So what they are asking, we couldn’t do.”
Gilberg, the union’s lawyer, has countered that the high court limited its decision to circumstances where there was no evidence that the city could save money or benefit from retaining experienced drivers. Such job protections have been in place for almost 50 years, union officials say.
To make its point to the public the union began broadcasting television and radio ads today. “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,” one of the commercials says.
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