Union Insists Mayor Holds Ultimate Power to End School Bus Strike

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Leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union hosted a town hall teleconference last night to clarify facts surrounding the school bus strike -- facts that they argue have been distorted by the Bloomberg administration and the media.

Last night's telephone town hall was held for the constituents of City Councilman Jumaane Williams who represents District 45 in Brooklyn. It marked the first of what the union plans to be a series of many telephone town halls hosted in conjunction with politicians representing various districts across the city.

"It's in the mayor's hands to end this," Michael Cordiello, president of ATU Local 1181, said during the teleconference. "Quite frankly we've been trying to reach out to the mayor for over a year. It was quite clear from both sides, the companies and the union, that the mayor holds the key to ending the strike."

Getting Mayor Michael Bloomberg to sit down at the negotiation table remains a faint hope for the union and the bus operators. Although the mayor helped broker Monday's meeting between Local 1181, the bus operators and a mediator, Bloomberg maintains his position that it's up to the union to negotiate with bus companies for the Employee Protection Provision that the strikers want to preserve.

"I'm very dismayed that the mayor himself, nor anyone from his administration, were a part of those discussions," Williams said during last night's call. "I feel like he's just saying 'I don't have to be a part of this.' He lit a match and just walked away."

The bus drivers and matrons of Local Union 1181 are striking to ensure that they will be allowed to keep certain employee protections when the city's new format for bus contracting is instituted in June. That's when the city will begin awarding bus operators contracts for the transportation of special-needs students on the basis of the lowest-responsible-bidder system.

For decades, the EPP has allowed bus drivers to carry wages, benefits and seniority over from one bus company to the next. Thus, drivers get to keep those benefits even after they've been laid off by a bus company whose contract has expired with the city.

As we previously reported, the N.Y. State Court Appeals ruled in 2011 that the EPP, as it was presented by the New York City Department of Education, hindered the ability of bus companies to competitively bid. That's why Bloomberg contends that there's nothing the city can do to ensure that an EPP deal is reached.

The union says that there are plenty of case studies that show that employee protections can be included in bid-style contracting, but Bloomberg really just wants to operate as cheaply as possible.

ATU International president Larry Hanley says that Bloomberg has inaccurately portrayed the costs of bus services as out of control, so that he can justify the city's desire to pay much less for the services moving forward.

"The mayor has distorted completely, in a fantastic way, the real cost of running the school bus system in New York in his comparisons with other cities," Hanley said on last night's call.

Hanley noted that Bloomberg keeps harping on the high costs the city pays to bus its students relative to other cities.

"New York City pays $1.1 billion each year for school busing, or an average of $6,900 per student. Back in 1979, for slightly fewer students, we paid $100 million," Bloomberg said during a news conference addressing the strike earlier this month. "Los Angeles just pays $3,100 per student. And, the monies that we spend on transportation are monies that we don't have to put into our school system."

The union executive reminded callers that the city is home to the country's largest school district. He also noted that about 25 percent of the nation's special education students reside in the city, and that the majority of the costs to bus students can be attributed to the transportation of special-needs students.

Hanley says that the rising costs that Bloomberg speaks of are a result of factors such as: stricter federal mandates for the transportation of special-needs children, a $400 increase in cost, since 1979, to operate a bus each day in the city, the reality that there are nearly three times as many schools buses on the road now than there were back then, the proliferation of charter schools, and the increase in routes that include destinations to counties outside of the five boroughs.

"The level of service has expanded tremendously," Hanley said. "It costs $1 billion and the mayor doesn't want to pay for it."

Earlier today Local 1181 announced that the city rejected an offer from the union and the bus companies to suspend the strike for a two-three month cooling period. The suspension would've have been exchanged for the delay of the new special-needs bus services bidding process and a promise from the city to join in on negotiations.

Councilman Williams believes that Bloomberg's refusal to negotiate with the bus drivers is indicative of his intensifying vendetta against unions.

"It's very important that the mayor doesn't really succeed in destroying unions, which clearly what he wants to do, and it's the only thing that's on his mind," Williams said. "I'm hoping that the community will rally behind them because so goes them, so goes us all. [I]t's really the unions that help us make sure that people get a wage that they can survive on."

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