US: New York City school bus drivers strike to defend workers’ rights and children’s safety

8,000 school bus drivers and matrons have struck for the first time in over three decades

To the average person the city appeared normal, but to a parent of school children it was a ghost town. The streets were empty of school buses this morning since 8,000 school bus drivers and matrons of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1181 have struck for the first time in over three decades. In a cost cutting measure, the city of New York has moved to do away with the Equal Protection Clause for bus drivers who serve over 150,000 children, many of them with special needs and disabilities.

The Struggle against Big-Business Propaganda

Striking drivers and matrons are outraged at the way their strike has been portrayed by Billionaire Bloomberg and the corporate media. Tony Livia, a shop steward in ATU local 1181 and a driver for 15 years says that the mayor lies continually in the media and portrays the union members as people with a job for life. Actually 200 to 300 ATU members get laid off each year for an average of 4 months, Livia says, because the city typically cuts bus routes in its yearly downsizing. The school bus drivers are usually rehired when parents call up and complain about the loss of service for their children. Now, Bloomberg’s plan is to eliminate the seniority and let the workers be hired back on a company by company basis, not on a union seniority basis. In this way the company who bids the lowest and pays the lowest will be able to call back the workers with less seniority, less experience, and lower wages first.

If the city gets its way, nearly 3,000 jobs from three companies alone will be lost in August when the contract expires. This race to the bottom will devastate the union and force workers with years of experience to compete with the lower wages of new hires.

Bloomberg called a press conference even before the strike was announced, and his speech was a hypocritical pile of rhetoric about "putting our children first." In reality the Bloomberg administration has implemented a slash and burn budget which puts bankers first while cutting millions of dollars from after-school programs which affect many of the same children that Billionaire Mike pretends to care for.

As a parent of a special needs student in the public school system, I have seen first-hand the level of skill that is required to safely drive a bus full of rambunctious and sometimes tearful children to school each day. Special needs children in particular, need to develop a bond with the bus driver and the matron, in order to establish trust and feel secure. When "Think of the Children" Bloomberg was asked if it was right to take these experienced drivers away from the children and break those familiar ties, especially in the wake of anxiety after the Newtown shootings, he famously said "They’ll get over it.”

The national debate about child safety seems to go flat when corporate politicians want to make profits. The mayor is already making preparations to hire scabs and this raises the question. Will rigorous background checks and driver training take place in the rush to break the strike and get an even lower wage work force? Let’s not be naive. In the words of one striking worker "Education is big business to those guys.” You have to remember that Bloomberg is the mayor who wanted the marathon to go ahead because it was "good for business" while people were dying in the streets of Staten Island and the Rockaways during Hurricane Sandy.

A Militant Approach Needed to Win Strike

Bloomberg has a few tools in his bag. He can hire scabs and use anti-labor laws and injunctions to make the right to strike illegal. What can the workers do? They must mobilize public support like the Chicago Teachers did a few months ago. The union must bring their case to the parents of the children at the schools each morning at drop off time, rather than picketing only at the bus depots. The strikers already have a reservoir of support from parents who know how important they are. But with each day that passes the corporate media and the Department of Education reinforce the mayor’s anti-union line and people will only hear that propaganda unless the unions call on the community to support them.

Independent Workers Candidates on the Agenda

Workers must also build a political alternative to the anti-worker politics of big business. There is a tremendous crying need for working people to run independent candidates for school board, city council, and even the mayoral elections. Those candidates would run on a pro-working people’s program like our Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant in Washington State. Her grassroots, skimpily funded campaign garnered nearly 30% of the vote against the incumbent Democrat, Frank Chopp. The possibilities for more campaigns which oppose the austerity and attacks on living standards would make the brutal anti-union environment we see today a lesson in ancient history. We need new anti-corporate political campaigns to defend workers and the repeal the anti-labor legislation which ties the union movement hand and foot.

I speak for many parents when I say that we depend on our public school system and its teachers, and we also depend on the skilled workers who get our children safely to the school house door.

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January 2013