The dispute erupted last month when the Education Department announced that it would accept competitive bids for transporting 22,500 special-needs children, who require special services. The contracts would cover 1,100 bus routes, about a sixth of the city’s total.City officials, led by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, are using rhetoric familiar to those who followed the Chicago teachers' strike; school bus drivers are selfish and don't care about children, as evidenced by the fact that they're fighting for job protections. Bloomberg points to the fact that New York pays more per student for busing than does Los Angeles, but doesn't talk as much about the fact that gas prices, rent and homeownership, and other basic expenses are higher in New York than Los Angeles. New York's school busing costs may or may not be too high, but Bloomberg is hardly a reasonable source of information.
Most galling for drivers and the union, the new contracts, among other things, would omit longstanding job security provisions requiring new companies to hire veteran bus drivers by order of seniority and at the same pay rate. The protections were put into effect in 1979 after a 13-week walkout. There have been no strikes since.
Officials, including Mr. Walcott and Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, have argued that a 2011 ruling by the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, prohibited the city from including the protective provisions in new contracts. The union has said the ruling applied only to contracts for busing prekindergarten students.
New York City after-school drama teacher Molly Knefel writes that the prospect of replacing longtime drivers for special needs students in particular matters:
... because how we treat those who care for certain children reflects how we value those children. It creates a system in which workers entrusted to be responsible for a child's safety are utterly replaceable in the name of protecting the bottom line. Bus drivers and matrons greet children in the morning and return them home in the afternoon and students with disabilities require specific knowledge, care and attention. Routine and stability are important to all children, but especially so to certain populations of special-needs children, including those with autism or emotional/behavioral disorders.Knefel also points out that Bloomberg's policies closing many neighborhood schools and promoting a "choice" system in which students travel far from their homes to attend school has heightened the city's reliance on the bus drivers who are now under attack by the Bloomberg administration.
If the drivers do go on strike, the city has a plan to provide students with MetroCards for public transit access or to reimburse transportation costs for students who don't have access to public transit.