Despite assurances that 'sharing the sacrifice' necessary as a result of the 2008 economic collapse is the patriotic duty of every American, the latest challenge to that burden-sharing philosophy are the school bus drivers, matrons and mechanics of Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1181, the country's largest transit union with 8,800 members in New York City.
On strike since January 16, the walkout was provoked when Mayor Michael Bloomberg withheld a court-ordered Employee Protection Provision (EPP) from Department of Education bids for upcoming school bus contracts. In place since 1979, the EPP guarantees each employee a job regardless of which company wins the bid by requiring the company to hire current workers based on seniority. Without the EPP in force, the privately owned bus companies will be able to cut wages and benefits as they replace experienced, trained personnel with minimum wage workers who lack the necessary CPR training or other required certifications.
Like most large urban cities, the City of New York does not directly employ its school bus drivers, matrons or mechanics, the majority of whom work for the Atlantic Express Transit Group which is the city's largest transit company and second largest in the country. While the majority of the city's 1.1 million public school students walk to school, 150,000 city students depend on bus service; one-third of whom are disabled requiring a wheelchair or autistic children.
In the background, beyond public purview is a Wall Street private equity firm, the Greenwich Street Capital Group, that purchased a controlling share of AETG in 1999. As any private equity firm's prospectus will confirm, its purpose in life is to invest in companies it perceives to be potentially profitable and to take whatever steps are necessary to assure that profitability... no matter if that means cutting services to school age children whose physical disabilities require an attendant on their school bus ride each day.
Driving a school bus or serving as an on-board caretaker is not exactly a Sunday drive through the park especially in the most densely packed, high-traffic city in the country, frequently driving long distances through multiple boroughs on tight schedules. While the City's school busing costs have risen to $1.1 billion in 2012, up from $300 million in 1994, it is not because of exorbitant bus driver salaries which top out at $50,000 a year or with matrons maxing out at $26,000. Working split shifts in the country's most expensive place to live, many members of 1181 are on food stamps and as of February 1, the bus companies have stopped providing the strikers with health benefits.
With the choice of getting arrested on the picket line or lose their job certification, Local 1181's back is to the wall in a classic labor struggle against a bazillion dollar Wall Street private equity firm and the City of New York which refuses to negotiate. Overwhelmingly minority, members of 1181 are on strike without the support of either political party as the teacher, firefighter, sanitation and transit unions (all working without a contract) remain on the sidelines and a union leadership that has offered to order workers back on the job.
On Friday afternoon, the NLRB dismissed a complaint brought by a coalition of bus companies that the walk-out is illegal citing the companies refusal to negotiate on the EPP which, according to the ruling, is an 'integral part'of employee contracts. The NLRB went on to affirm that the City of New York is a 'primary employer' associated with the strike. The bus coalition has said it will appeal the decision -- and until the job security of the EPP is restored, the strike goes on.
This article first appeared on Huffington Post.