The pupil-transportation system in New York is, like most of the city’s byzantine public-transit network, a messy tangle of private and public interests, forever veering from one political, financial, or labor crisis to another. That’s why the embattled transit-workers union is pushing a road map for a new school-bus system that promises fairer contracts, greener technology, and less-frazzled families.
Hoping to overcome the city contracting system’s perennial labor conflicts, local bus drivers with TWU 100 are pressing the city to make school-bus service, long dominated by private bus corporations, more accountable to both workers and school communities through a union-led cooperative. Ideally, the pilot project would partner with the de Blasio administration’s coop development initiative to launch a labor-powered workplace. It could compete alongside the city’s numerous private vendors, but give the workers primary authority to negotiate contracts and compensation with the administration, compared to the ordinary contracting process. In the long run, the union’s vision is to gear up the industry as a whole with a more socially equitable, ecologically sustainable way of doing business.
Under the Bloomberg administration, school-bus drivers wrangled over the retention of longstanding union pay protections, while bridling under cost-cutting pressures. TWU 100 President John Samuelsen developed the cooperative model as an alternative for organizing a modern transit workplace, which would be truly governed by workers’ interests.
Though city school-bus drivers are largely unionized, working conditions remain unstable and uneven across the region. In neighboring Westchester County, Samuelsen says, the union has struggled against low-road contractors: “Every time we made contractural gains…really improving workers’ lives. And non-union vendors would come around and win the bid and pull the rug out from underneath us, so we would have to start all over with a nonunion vendor. That situation made me realize that the way we were going to improve the lives [of drivers] is to take the profit motive out of the school bus industry.” Removing corporate-controlled vendors would “solidify the wages, benefits, and working conditions of school bus industry workers,” he argues, by putting the power “into the hands of the workers themselves.”
Under the union’s vision, which would initially seek to drive some of the 15 city bus routes without a permanent provider, an independent governing board of worker-members would helm operations, from pay scales to pensions to long-term finances. There could also be a designated role for parents to participate as taxpaying stakeholders. While a separate executive and staff might be hired to handle everyday administrative functions, the cooperative would be inherently more democratic, Samuelsen says. With a labor-oriented decision-making process, workers themselves would decide on wages and working conditions “through a democratic process that would be something similar to collective bargaining, but they themselves are the owners.”