School buses at Coney Island in 2008.

The bus drivers union that Mayor Bloomberg warned earlier today could wage an imminent strike on the school bus system confirmed that a strike was “likely” but disputed that there were “immediate plans to do so.”

A labor dispute between the city and the union, the Amalgamated Transit Union’s Local 1181, is over job protections for school bus drivers that would essentially guarantee employment for current employee regardless of which bus contractors win an upcoming contract for busing services.

The city says it considers the strike illegal and is asking the National Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates conflict between employers and employees, to seek a court injunction to stop it. A strike would affect 152,000 of the city’s 1.1 million students, including more than 50,000 students with special needs, according to the city.

At a hastily assembled press conference today, Mayor Bloomberg said the union had not officially informed the city that it would strike but had signaled the intention strongly in conversations beginning Wednesday. The conversations took place because the city said it planned to announce that it would consider hiring new companies to provide pre-kindergarten busing. That announcement happened today.

“They were very clear to our people that they would intentionally strike the system,” Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said about Local 1181 at the press conference.

In a statement, Amalgamated Transit Union’s Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello confirmed the threats but said it would not happen right away and he criticized Bloomberg for painting a doomsday scenario. 

“The issue here is getting children to school safely and securely,” Cordiello said in an emailed statement. “All the Mayor has done is create more chaos, instability, and concern among parents about NYC school buses, which have already been poorly managed for years.”

The central issue prompting the labor dispute is an employee protection provision that would guarantee jobs for union that are currently employed even if the city decides to change the bus companies it contracts with. Cordiello said the provision is meant to ensure that experienced bus drivers would be driving the city’s buses regardless of who wins the contract.

But if such a perk were granted, the city said it would be illegally allowing the union to coerce a third party to get incentives from its employer.

In 2008, when the city was last procuring new bus contracts, companies sued the city because it had included the job guarantee language in its RFPs. For once, the city and the unions paired up to fight the law suit, but a judge from New York State’s highest court ruled ruled in favor of the bus companies and concluded that the city couldn’t include the provision in the bid.

With that legal precedent in place, Mayor Bloomberg is lining up on the other side of the fight this time around, something that bus drivers union took note of.

“After spending three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees standing by our side and defending employment protections for school bus drivers, the Mayor has inexplicably and duplicitously flip-flopped on decades-old city policy,” Cordiello said.

In letters sent to principals and parents today, Walcott outlined a robust set of contingency plans that leave little up in the air.

In the event of a strike, students who currently receive school bus service would get Metrocards to allow them to travel to school. Students with special needs who receive transportation services would be reimbursed weekly for their travel costs, so a family would be reimbursed for using taxis or private vehicles to get to school.

Any field trips on school buses would be canceled, and students who stay for after-school programs would not receive transportation home.

Principals have been instructed not to mark students late until two hours into the school day if a strike takes place and have been reminded of the attendance codes to use so that students who are late because of transportation issues are not penalized. Principals are also being warned the transportation disruptions could require staffing changes.

“In the unusual event that a large number of students arrive early or stay late due to the lack of busing and additional supervision is needed, supplementary resources may be available,” Walcott said in his to principals.

Kim Madden, director of legal services at the nonprofit Advocates for Children, said the city’s contingency plans would pose new problems for poor families and children with special needs.

“Taxis are not exactly accessible in NYC for people who use wheelchairs!” Madden wrote in an email. “Poor parents won’t be able to afford car service and wait for reimbursement and that’s what some students with disabilities would need to get to school.”

The city has contracts with several bus companies, whose drivers are all members of Local 1181, the largest chapter of the national Amalgamated Transit Union. The city is in the process of examining the contracts for companies that bus pre-kindergarten students and could opt to hire different companies to provide transportation starting next summer.

If it does, the union wants job protections for drivers whose companies are not chosen. But the city says a state legal ruling bars it from guaranteeing those protections as it solicits bids for the new contracts. Since 1979, the protections have existed for most school bus drivers, but Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed a bill in September that would have extended the protections to pre-K bus drivers.

In recent years, the school bus drivers’ union — which has a long history of corruption — has several times signaled that it might strike. That happened as recently as March 2010 but the union has not actually executed a strike since 1979. The 1979 strike lasted for three months, during which time Department of Corrections buses were used to transport children, before the city gave in and offered new protections to bus drivers. Those protections are a large part of why the Department of Education’s transportation costs have skyrocketed from $75 million a year in 1979 to $1 billion annually today.

Here’s the letter going home with students today:

And here’s the letter principals got:

From: Walcott Dennis M
Sent: Fri 11/18/2011 11:02
Subject: Possible disruptions to yellow bus service: parent letter to backpack today

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to inform you of the strong possibility of an immediate, system-wide strike by our bus drivers’ union-local 1181-that could impact yellow bus service for more than 152,000 students citywide.

The New York City Department of Education (DOE) is issuing a bid to secure new yellow bus contracts to transport special education pre-kindergarten and early intervention (“pre-school”) children to their school programs for the 2012-2013 school year.  Our current contracts are set to expire at the end of June 2012 and it is imperative that we move forward now to secure a new contract.  The bus drivers’ union has told us that if the bid does not include an Employee Protection Provision-a measure which guarantees their workers civil service-type seniority rights in the event that their current employers do not win the new bid-they will go on strike, system-wide.  This would result in severe disruptions, or possibly complete discontinuance, of yellow bus service.

In our view, this would be an illegal strike, and it is all the more unconscionable when you consider that New York State’s highest Court recently ruled that we may not include an Employee Protection Provision requirement in the bid.  Because the union has told us they will strike, we have filed an unfair labor practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board and asking that it seek an injunction in federal court as quickly as possible.

We are deeply concerned about the impact of a strike on your schools and school communities. To that end, we are asking that you backpack home the attached letter for parents with all students and inform your staff of this development today, and inform them of the provisions we will make to help students get to school in the event of a strike.

These provisions include:

  • For all students who currently receive yellow bus service from a designated school bus stop to school, we will be issuing Metrocards. Additional guidance about Metrocard distribution will be forthcoming.
  • Parents of children with IEPs requiring transportation from their home directly to their school, as well as parents of children in grades K-2, may request a Metrocard for the parent or guardian to act as the child’s escort to school.
  • For children who have an IEP requiring transportation from their home directly to their school, we are offering reimbursement for actual transportation costs.  Parents who drive their children to school will be reimbursed at a rate of 51 cents per mile.  Parents who use a taxi or car service to transport their child to school will be reimbursed for the trip upon completion of reimbursement forms that include a receipt for provided services. The reimbursement process is described in the attached letter for parents.

As the leader of your school, you should know the following:

  • Field trips requiring yellow bus service will be cancelled if there is a bus service disruption.   Please make appropriate alternative arrangements, and inform staff, parents, students, and the field trip destination.
  • After school programs will remain open, but no busing will be provided.
  • Any paraprofessionals who currently accompany students requiring assistance during door to door busing service should report directly to school.
  • In the unusual event that a large number of students arrive early or stay late due to the lack of busing and additional supervision is needed, supplementary resources may be available. Please contact your CFN budget liaison.
  • There will be a 2-hour reprieve for children delayed arriving to school because of disruptions to yellow bus service.  Student lateness or absence due to the disruptions to yellow bus service should be coded as follows in ATS so they are noted as excused for the purposes of student attendance records and school data related to NYC Progress Reports:
    • For lateness:
      U     39   L – EXCUSED LATENESS
    • For absence:
  • The Office of Pupil Transportation and your Children First Networks will be providing you with the support needed to manage the various details of the issues/concerns that may arise in the event of a strike.

Thank you for working with us to mitigate what could be a major disturbance in the lives of our schools, staff, students and families. We continue to hope that the bus driver and escort union will not take such unwarranted action in response to what is the proper, legal course of action for the Department of Education to take on behalf of our students and the City taxpayers.

Dennis M. Walcott