Members of ATU Local 1181 walk the picket line. (Creative Commons)
Today, 8,800 school bus drivers from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 have gone on strike, demanding the protection of job security provisions that have granted them a living wage and economic security since they struck thirty-three years ago. As Allison Kilkenny detailed yesterday, the initial response of New York City’s political class has been to place the blame on the amorphous category of “unions”–somehow independent of the workers that compose them–and to try to frame the debate as disabled children versus union thugs.
Unsurprisingly, this narrative bears little correspondence to reality. The focal point of the strike is that the city is seeking to open a competitive bidding process for city contracts without guaranteeing job security provisions for those currently employed. But while decision-makers in the city claim that this is about fiscal responsibility, what it would do in practice is enrich wealthy contractors at the taxpayer’s dime while undermining solid middle-class jobs.
The Mayor has argued that the employee protection provisions are somehow illegal, calling the strike “meshuganah”, bizarrely identifying the latter term as a “Gaelic” word. Labor attorney Richard Gilberg disagrees, telling the New York Times that “There has never been a court ruling that the employee protection provisions are, in all cases, illegal.”
Demanding a new competitive bidding process for school bus contractors while defenestrating job security for experienced drivers is ultimately a gloss for the Mayor’s free-spending contracting policies, which have resulted in such cost overruns as the CityTime scandal (costing more than $600 million) and the Emergency Communications Transformation Program (costing more than $250 million). The city’s largest municipal union, AFSCME District Council 37, has been exposing the details of Bloomberg’s contracting policies, to (unfortunately) little media attention.
What is particularly galling is that while the city claims that it spends three times as much as Los Angeles on busing children to school, it has failed to mention that both Los Angeles and Chicago have considerably lower overhead on city contracts than New York. The city has more than 3,000 contractors who continue to receive city contracts despite failing to meet the conditions of prior contracts, yet it is school bus drivers making $35,000 per year who are somehow to blame for the city’s fiscal woes.
Of course, when it is his rich cronies enjoying job security, the Mayor tends to be quieter about the costs of city contracts. And so like most labor conflicts, it quickly becomes clear that the dividing line in this one is a question of the 99% versus the 1%: should we have experienced bus drivers making a living wage taking care of disabled children, or should the city be a playground for the rich, with low-wage jobs for everyone else? Should decent wage jobs be considered an unnecessary burden or a critical part of a civilized urban metropolis?
Ultimately, that question is up to us. Call Mayor Bloomberg at 311 and demand that he give school bus drivers a fair deal.