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.
All school bus drivers would have to be re-trained immediately and citizens could call in concerns about individual drivers to a city hotline, if the city followed a list of demands Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum issued yesterday. The demands come on the heels of reports of school bus abuse, including a 7-year-old stranded on a bus in Queens this month, a four-year-old Brooklyn child stranded on a school bus last month, and a severely disabled 22-year-old left on a freezing school bus overnight January 1.
Asked whether the city will follow Gotbaum's demands, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education, Marge Feinberg, said, "We have an effective policy in place that suspends bus personnel for half a year for the first infraction and decertifies them if it happens again." According to the policy, drivers who leave children alone on a bus have their licenses suspended for 180 days. The licenses are revoked if they commit an error a second time. School officials also pointed out that two of the three most recent cases of abuse happened on private buses, not school buses run by the DOE. (The 4-year-old in Brooklyn was riding a DOE school bus.)
In a press release, Gotbaum points out that while cosmetologists in the city have to register 1,000 hours of training, school bus drivers are required to put in just 10 hours of training and two three-hour refresher courses a year. She also cites a 2007 Daily News investigation that found that the Department of Education hid 225 cases of bus abuse, including one case where a bus driver beat a student with special needs. (Since then, the Department of Education has taken steps to prevent hidden abuse in the future, hiring a new chief manager of the investigative unit and a slew of experienced investigators, Feinberg said.)
Gotbaum's full list of demands is below the jump.