NEW YORK -- As New York City school bus drivers head toward a strike, slated for Wednesday morning, the national president of the drivers' union accused Mayor Michael Bloomberg of trying to gut standards for workers in public services, comparing the mayor to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), who controversially rolled back collective bargaining rights for public employees in that state.
"This is the New York equivalent of Scott Walker's attempts to strip workers in public services of their wages and benefits," Larry Hanley, president of the 190,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union, told The Huffington Post. "That's what it's intended to do. It is an assault on the foundation of decent wages and decent health care and decent retirement standards."
Bloomberg, in turn, has accused the union of "abandoning" the city's students. "With its regrettable decision to strike, the union is abandoning 152,000 students and their families who rely on school bus service each day," Bloomberg said in a Monday statement. The mayor's office didn't immediately respond to Hanley's comments Tuesday.
As Chicago teachers did during a high-profile strike there last year, the bus drivers' union has tried to turn the dispute in New York into a debate over students' best interests. While city officials have said a strike would be irresponsible and hurt students and parents, the union argues that it's merely trying to maintain high working standards and protect children from cheaper, inexperienced labor.
Bloomberg has touted a strike emergency plan that would compensate students for the cost of public transportation and car transportation to and from school during the strike. But some parents are wary of sending students with disabilities on mass transit, armed only with MetroCards.
Transporting those students is at the center of the fight between the city and the union -- the contested routes serve 54,000 students with disabilities, the Daily News reported. The city announced last month it would solicit bids from companies to operate some bus routes, many of which serve the city's District 75, a district with schools designed especially for students with special needs. Those new contracts would undercut seniority and pay provisions that Hanley and the drivers say are crucial to maintaining standards in the city's bus system.
The city does not employ its school bus drivers, who work for private firms, but it does bid out the contracts. Due to an appeals court ruling, city officials have claimed they are legally obliged to omit the provisions at issue from the city's bus contracts. In a press conference Monday, Bloomberg said that the city can't legally offer what the union is asking for, and that it has a responsibility to find cost savings in the bus system.
"The monies that we spend on transportation are monies we don’t have to put into our school system," Bloomberg said, adding that the city spends $1.1 billion a year on student transportation, or $6,900 per student. The school system's latest budget was $24 billion.
Speaking of the seniority and pay provisions for drivers, Hanley countered, "This is the agreement that has made it possible for workers to have careers in this industry."
Hoping to make its case to the public, the union released an ad Tuesday casting the city's proposal as dangerous and showing montages of wrecked school buses. "When inexperienced drivers take your kids to school, sometimes they never get there," the narrator intones.
Bloomberg rejects the contention that ceding to the union would preserve safety. Lauren Passalacqua, a mayoral spokeswoman, told HuffPost that bus drivers hired under the new contract would still require the same trainings, exams and certifications. "They'll argue they have more experienced drivers driving but the drivers still have annual training and exams, so that doesn't change," she said.
The issues contested in the school bus strike echo problems Bloomberg has had with other unions involved with the school system -- particularly the United Federation of Teachers. Like other proponents of the so-called education reform movement, Bloomberg wants to reject the union's lockstep compensation scheme that prizes teacher seniority above all.
That dispute is expensive. If Bloomberg and the UFT don't come to an agreement on teacher evaluations within two days, the city could lose $300 million in federal funding.