NY school bus strike ends in defeat

School Bus Strike

By MARTY GOODMAN

NEW YORK—Some 8800 school bus drivers and helpers (called “matrons”) returned to their jobs on Feb. 16 after losing a bitter month-long strike over the city’s cancellation of job security guarantees, known as Employee Protection Provisions (EPP). The EPP includes seniority-based hiring, training, health care, and benefits.

Now when private bus companies, many under mafia influence, bid on routes, the jobs and rights of skilled workers will be lost as profit-hungry companies seek to under-bid rivals. The results will be devastating for low-income families.

Some 150,000 pre-kindergarten and grade school students were affected by the strike, which began on Jan. 16, one-third of whom were students with special needs. The strikers, organized by the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, are mostly non-white and Haitian immigrants.

On Feb. 15, a face-saving deal, apparently brokered by ATU International President Larry Hanley, was announced in a statement released by five Democratic candidates for the mayoral election in November. Candidates Christine Quinn, Bill Thompson, John Liu, Bill de Blasio, and Sal Albanese asked the ATU to end the strike and pledged to “revisit” the issue if one of them is elected mayor. The pledge avoided embracing the EPP demand by name, while warning the ATU that all decisions will be “fiscally responsible,” that is, maintaining the threat of lowered wages and benefits for workers.

The union vote to end the strike was conducted by phone calls to the Local 1181 Executive Board—a method that avoided any discussion. The membership had voted to strike at a meeting of 1500 members last May. Striking workers had massed at ATU picket lines at nearly 50 locations in the freezing New York winter. The strikers received only $150 to $300 a week as strike pay. At press time, at least 100 workers have returned to work only to find that they have been replaced or laid off.

“They got scab drivers that are going to be coming in,” said Sergio Fuerges, who escorts special-needs children to school in the Bronx. “They’ll be working for less money, with a lot less experience doing these runs.” “If the EPP is not inside the contract,” says Fuerges, “then we just lose our jobs, and that’s that. They’ll just hire a hundred drivers at a lower rate without the experience, and we’ll lose everything.”

Evelyn Catalano, 65, a driver for more than a decade, said replacement workers could not do her job. “We take classes and get fingerprinted to do our jobs right. You don’t know who those drivers are. These children are our most precious cargo. I didn’t get this job for the money. The kids love us and we love them and I miss them.”

Leading the union-busting assault was billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg, who ran as an independent in the last election. Bloomberg summed up the strike’s significance for New York’s rich ruling class: “In the city’s entire history, the special interests [unions] have never had less power than they do today, and the end of the strike reflects the fact that when we say we put children first, we mean it.” Larry Hanley, national ATU President said, “This is the New York equivalent of [Wisconsin Governor] Scott Walker’s attempts to strip workers in public services of their wages and benefits.”

The strike was provoked in December when Bloomberg—worth $25 billion and counting—put up for bid about 1/7 of the city’s 7700 bus routes without EPP, a first in 33 years. Bloomberg ignored union appeals to postpone bidding and negotiate. The EPP was originally won in 1979 following a three-month strike.

During the recent ATU strike, 2000 routes were driven by scabs from non-union companies and other companies organized by different ATU locals and Teamsters Local 284. At least two pedestrians were killed by scab drivers during the strike. A mobilized New York labor movement could have stopped scab buses cold and halted the union-busters dead in their tracks. This was a working-class issue that cried out for joint union-parent mobilization, but it was diverted by union bureaucrats tied to the Democratic Party.

From the outset, Bloomberg sought to pit working families against each other—an old bosses’ trick. He accused the ATU of “abandoning” the children, especially special needs students. The corporate press echoed the lie, but for the most part, it didn’t work. Even conservative Staten Island parents supported striking bus workers over Bloomberg by 55%.

One parent strike-support group, “People to Improve School Transportation (PIST),” and others organized a car caravan Feb. 2 from downtown to Bloomberg’s house on the Upper East Side and on up to the Bronx to a rally of several hundred. Over 50 Teamster bus workers were there from Boston. They carried with them copies of an EPP-type law signed by the mayor of Boston.

Bloomberg’s professed concern for children and education is a fraud. Since 2002, Bloomberg can hand pick the School Board and implemented one-man rule; 1800 teacher’s jobs are slated to be cut in 2013 during Bloomberg’s last year as mayor. Like most city unions, the United Federation of Teachers has been without a contract for years. The privatization of education known as “charter schools,” championed by President Obama, is being implemented under Bloomberg at a furious pace. Bloomberg has closed some 100 public schools.

Bloomberg used a 2011 Appeals Court decision to ram through the decimation of the EPP. The ATU hotly contested Bloomberg’s interpretation of the ruling, but he proceeded with his union busting. Another 20 routes go up for bid June 30.

Removing EPP would “save” the city “tens of millions,” said the mayor, a claim the union also contests. When Bloomberg-appointee School Chancellor Dennis Walcott was asked at a City Council hearing why EPP costs the city so much, he had no answer. The ATU says that workers’ salaries, adjusted for inflation, have actually declined 1% in 30 years. Drivers earn an average of $35,000 a year, matrons $28,000, both below the city’s median income and far less than New York City’s public bus drivers. Some school-bus drivers’ families must rely on food stamps.

Once the strike started, Bloomberg refused to negotiate with the ATU, calling the strike “illegal” because contracts were negotiated with the bus companies. On Feb. 8, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that the city and the bus companies were both “primary employers” of the striking workers. The arrogant mayor simply ignored the NLRB, demonstrating once again the futility of relying on the courts for justice.

PIST and other groups have maintained that the bus companies and the city are in violation of the law. PIST member Johnnie Stevens said, “The security of our children is interconnected with the security of the workers who provide transportation, which is a special education right as defined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and also of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN). The WARN Act requires companies with more than a hundred workers to give 60-day notice before closing a plant or enacting mass layoffs.”

According to commondreams.org, the majority of school buses are owned by the Atlantic Express Transit Group, which is the city’s largest transit company and second largest in the country. Greenwich Street Capital Group, a hedge fund, purchased a controlling share of AETG in 1999. Hedge fund companies are capitalism at its most brutal. Their goal is to realize a maximum profit and move on, no matter what the cost in human terms.

Democratic Party plays an ugly role

The Democrats directly helped Bloomberg’s union busting. Although every previous mayor since 1979 had supported EPP, Bloomberg sent a memo to the governor reversing the city’s position. He urged a veto of legislation already passed in Albany that protected EPP. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, accordingly vetoed the bill in September 2011, enabling the mayor to begin bidding on routes without employee protections.

The objective of the Democrats was clearly to end the strike, while posing as “friends of labor” to the city’s large union membership, a huge voting block. An Feb. 1 statement by the City Council, dominated by Democrats, called for an end to the strike and a “mediated” cooling-off period. In line with national policy, the Democrats did not want to be appear too closely identified with labor—just closely enough to get labor’s money, its vote, and its getting members to ring doorbells for candidates.

On Feb. 22, at a union-backed event on transportation in New York, the five Democratic candidates were completely silent about the just concluded ATU strike, despite their so-called opposition to Bloomberg’s policies.

In addition, no mention was made by any of the candidates about the expired contract of the Transport Workers Union Local 100, the New York subway and bus workers. Local 100 workers have been without a contract or a raise from the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) for one year. The Feb. 22 panelists were silent about contract issues—even though Local 100 was a key organizer of the event and in the room! The MTA is controlled by a fellow Democrat, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is attempting to shove zero wage contracts down the throats of the TWU and other state unions.

The poisonous role of the Democrats in this episode is proof once again that workers need their own party, a fighting labor party!

Which way for labor?

ATU President Hanley’s comparison of the recent strike in New York to labor’s defeat in Wisconsin that was noted above is apt in a way that perhaps he did not intend.

In 2011, public workers and their allies in Madison, Wis., responded to the governor’s union busting by mobilizing in the tens of thousands and, at one point, occupying the state Capitol building. The Democratic Party, as defenders of the 1%, squashed the largest militant mobilization of working people seen in decades. Democratic Party bosses directed their loyal labor lieutenants to get out of the street and into the voting booth. The workers lost; their fight back was derailed and demoralized.

In the case of the school-bus drivers, there was only one solidarity rally. It took place on Feb. 16—one month into the strike! A march started in Brooklyn and marched over the Brooklyn Bridge and emptied into an area next to City Hall on a Sunday afternoon peopled mainly by tourists. Rally estimates were 2000 to 5000 protestors, about 80% ATU members. Speakers were mostly Democratic Party politicians and union officers who are tied hand and foot to the Democrats—who mouthed empty threats aimed at Bloomberg.

The ATU, like the public union leaderships in Wisconsin, relied on Democratic Party politicians to defeat billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg, instead of seeking to mobilize New York’s large organized working class. A serious mass mobilization of labor in support of the ATU could have stopped scab buses cold and shut down the city.

Capitalism—the profit system—is in crisis. The onslaught of the boss class will not slow down until living standards are slashed to the bone for everyone. Building mass independent labor action in the workplaces, the streets, and at the ballot box will point the way for a winning fightback for working people.

Photo: Bebeto Matthews / AP