By Phil Corso and Christina Santucci
Parents throughout Queens geared up for a dramatic change to their daily routines after union bus drivers enacted a strike with hopes of retaining certain job guarantees.
Jackson Heights mother and special education teacher Poonam Batra escorted 10-year-old daughter Rashmika and two others into school at PS 85 in Astoria Wednesday morning with concerns of her own. Although the school she teaches at in Jamaica was unaffected by the strike, her morning schedule has been turned upside down by the walkout.
“I was really worried about how they are going to go to school because I will be late for work every day,” she said.
Leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 have been in an ongoing public labor dispute with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city Department of Education for several months now and spent the last week threatening to strike if they were not promised certain job guarantees in new contracts. The union announced Monday they would officially begin the strike and walked out Wednesday.
“I am disappointed in Mayor Bloomberg’s insensitivity towards New York’s children and parents as they continue to deal with the city’s decision to refuse to work towards an agreement to end the present school bus strike,” said Michael Cordiello, ATU 1181 president.
Outside Atlantic Express bus depot in Ridgewood, Cordiello said the union was prepared to strike until contracts included a jobs guarantee in the form of an Employee Protection Provision, which Bloomberg said was impossible after a 2011 state Court of Appeals ruling blocked it specifically for pre-kindergarten bus contracts.
“Twelve judges told them they’re wrong, that they are seeking protections that aren’t provided incidentally in any other school district in the nation,” Bloomberg said at a news conference. “In fact, Local 1181 has contracts with other bus companies nearby in Westchester County, on Long Island, and in Connecticut that do not have in those contracts provisions such as this, and where they’re nevertheless providing safe, reliable bus service. But if you tell a lie long enough, maybe some people will believe it.”
Most students survived the first day without their school buses, the Department of Education said, but not those with special needs. According to Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, attendance dipped less than 1 percent. But the biggest drop came from District 75, where 25 percent of special needs students did not report to school, he said.
The strike affects more than 152,000 students, 54,000 of whom have disabilities and require special transportation arrangements, Walcott said.
According to Bloomberg, there are 7,700 yellow school bus routes in the city and about 11 percent of the city’s 1.35 million public and private students were affected by the strike. The remaining 1.2 million students still had bus service as their drivers were either represented by other unions or were nonunion workers and their contracts were not up for renewal, Bloomberg said.
In Astoria, about two dozen drivers and escorts picketed in front of Rainbow, Citywide and All American bus companies Wednesday morning. Workers estimated that more than 600 people were employed at the site.
Willie Mae Thomas of Queens Village has worked as a bus driver for 19 years and picketed with several others in the rain.
“We have to get [students] to school safe and home safe,” Thomas said. “Our job protection is very important to us.”
Walcott said city schools have taken several precautions to help ease the commuting troubles of students, such as providing them and their parents with free MetroCards and reimbursing auto travel.
New York City spends roughly $1.1 billion, or $6,900 per student, each year on buses — the highest in the country. Los Angeles spends the second-most with $3,100 per student.
According to Bloomberg, the city paid $100 million per student in 1979, the last time the union’s contract was renewed after another strike lasted about three months.
Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.