Months After Bus Strike, Workers Remain on Edge

School bus drivers, mechanics and matrons protesting during their strike last February in New York City. Back at work, they remain anxious about job security. (by Michael Fleshman, Flickr Creative Common License)

Marie Louis, a 17-year veteran New York City school bus driver, remembers watching in anguish on TV when her labor union, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, announced a citywide strike on January 16. Louis, a Haitian immigrant who wakes up every day at 5 a.m. to take her three kids to school and get ready for her 12-hour shift, saw her only source of income evaporate.

“We didn’t want to strike but we had to support the union’s decision, even though we weren’t prepared for it,” said Louis, 44. “We are not sure what will happen next.”

Louis is one of 8,000 bus drivers, mechanics and matrons affected by last winter’s month-long bus strike.  But like many others who eventually gave up their fight against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s refusal to grant employment protections, she worries that job security issues may remain unaddressed, even though the strike ended in part because mayoral candidates promised they would treat workers equitably. Now workers are hoping that the new mayor will implement job protections.

The strike was called last January after union leaders failed to get the city to include job protections for current employees in future contracts with bus companies bidding for routes. Mayor Bloomberg claimed that, due to a court ruling, he was prohibited from adding such protections.

At the center of the dispute was Bloomberg’s removal of the Employee Protection Provision (EPP) from the Department of Education’s bids for service from new bus contractors. The EPP is a clause implemented in Local 1181 contracts which stipulates that no matter what company wins a school bus contract, the workers will not lose their jobs.

“Workers have a private pension system not funded by the city or taxpayers,” said Maggie McKeon, a union spokeswoman. “They are simply asking for job security, in a form of a provision within the school bus contracts/EPPs, not higher wages or benefits.”

A month into the strike, with no progress in sight, five Democratic mayoral candidates seeking to succeed Bloomberg pleaded with the union and bus drivers to end the strike. City Council speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, City Comptroller John Liu, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson and former Councilman Sal Albanese set aside their differences in trying to put an end to the conflict.

The candidates wrote a letter to Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello stating: “If elected, we will revisit the school bus transportation system and contracts. We are confident that a fair, lawful and expeditious process can be reestablished that meets our shared goals of safety, efficiency, and job security.”

Councilman Jumaane Williams lauded the Democratic field “for stepping into a labor crisis that Mayor Bloomberg would not engage in, despite the legality of the strike.”

Approximately 5,000 of the city’s 7,700 school bus routes were affected by the strike, leaving about 152,000 students without transportation to school, including special-needs kids who were left to catch cabs, carpool or take the MTA system.

The city was able to reimburse families up to $17 million in MetroCards, taxi vouchers and other costs for personal vehicles. New York City spends nearly $1.1 billion a year to bus students to school.

The candidates’ involvement effectively ended the strike after a month of picketing in the cold weather. However, Louis and her colleagues remain on edge because they have received no guarantee that their EPP status will be reinstated. “It’s a risk taking the vow of mayoral candidates with no EPP but we will wait for one of them to be elected and we’ll see what happens,’’ said Louis.

During the strike, some bus drivers were concerned they would risk losing their jobs as several bus companies were forced to hire inexperienced replacement workers to fill their positions temporarily. Local 1181 was able to provide partial reimbursement to bus drivers and matrons. “I got $150 a week from the union during the strike, but living paycheck-to-paycheck is hard and I have a mortgage to pay,” said Louis. “I am glad to be back at work.”

According to Local 1181, bus drivers and matrons earn on average $30,000-$35,000 a year, and many of them are Haitian immigrants. “We understand their concerns, as the city is attempting to remove seniority from bus contracts leaving little incentive to stay in this industry,” said McKeon.

Tensions rose recently after bus operators cut weekly wages to drivers and matrons by 7.5 percent on April 15. Representatives of Local 1181 say they are working with bus companies to avoid further cuts and ultimately dodge another citywide strike. Cordiello pledged in a statement, “I will fight for guaranteed job security for senior workers. The mayor’s term will end and we have the support now.”

Alex Calixte, a Haitian immigrant and school bus driver, is still worried. “Our life is in danger. Without job protection, if something happened we will get fired. We are happy to have our jobs back after the strike but the Mayor and the bus companies do not want unions,” said Calixte. “But what about us?”

This article was written as part of the Covering NYC: Political Reporting Fellowship of the Center for Community and Ethnic Media and funded by a grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation. 

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