NEW YORK—School bus drivers are excited to get back to work after beginning a strike about one month ago. Drivers will be back on the job on Wednesday.
“I can’t wait. I can’t wait to go back,” said Evelyn Catalano, a Brooklyn bus driver. “We’re all happy.”
The strike was called off late Friday evening in a conference call after a letter sent by five Democratic candidates for mayor told the bus drivers union they will revisit the subject if any of them get elected in November.
Catalano said she agrees with the union head’s decision to call off the strike.
“We all agree, because we know he’s out looking for us, for our protection,” she said. “It’s not an easy job, it’s a big responsibility, being a school bus driver. The parents put their whole trust in us for their children’s lives. That makes you feel good.”
Mike Allen, whose daughter Trinity attends Cooke Center Grammar School, was pleased to hear about the end of the strike.“I think it’s good, that it’s over with, that they came to a decision,” Allen said.
Trinity’s bus still ran during the strike, but bus drivers and matrons, who help special education children on buses, changed a lot, said Allen. Also, her classmates were affected much more.
“It also affects the mood in the classroom,” he said. “She has certain classmates that haven’t been to school since the strike.”
Thousands of bus drivers began a strike on Jan. 16 over the new contracts being bid out; which don’t include the Employee Protection Provision, which they say is key in protecting seniority.
The union and officials will continue negotiating while the drivers return to work.
“Our bus drivers and matrons look forward to getting back to work and doing the important job of safely transporting the students, who are like our own children, to and from school each day,” said Michael Cordiello, president of Local 1181, the school bus driver’s union, in a newsletter.
The end of the strike signals a defeat for the union, which had hoped to force Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration to re-write the contracts to include the same provisions as before.
Yet drivers interviewed on Monday sounded pleased to return to work, and hopeful that after Bloomberg leaves office, his successor will revisit the contracts and re-work them in the union’s favor.
“As far as we know, these politicians that are running, they’re going to do the right thing for us,” said Joseph Pizzuti, who drives in all five boroughs. The five candidates who signed the letter are City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, former comptroller William Thompson, current comptroller John Liu, and former city councilman Sal Albanese, all Democrats.
“We pledge, if elected, to revisit the school bus transportation system and contracts and take effective action to insure that the important job security, wages and benefits of your members are protected within the bidding process, while at the same time are fiscally responsible for taxpayers,” write the five in a letter to the union.
Pizzuti did say, however, that another strike is possible.
“Two weeks after we were on strike, they discontinued the medical plans,” he said. “So it’s tough for people with families, so they said ‘look, we’ll come back, but we’re still under negotiation.’ So either they will negotiate this, or we’ll go back on strike, maybe September, again.”
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, speaking on Monday at Tweed Courthouse near City Hall, told reporters that city officials are also pleased the strike is coming to an end.
“We’re glad to see the strike over,” he said, adding he felt relief more than anything else. With students missing time from school from Hurricane Sandy, and some from the prolonged strike, “We cannot afford to have students unnecessarily miss another day of school,” Walcott said.
During the strike students and parents had to make alternative arrangements, some using MetroCards and others hailing taxis or riding buses. MetroCards doled out to students during the strike will expire on Feb. 20.
The city ultimately has spent $20 million reimbursing parents for alternative transportation, including $17 million from MetroCards. The $3 million for other methods will likely rise over the near future as more reimbursement forms come in, said Walcott. The city saved $80 million from not paying school bus drivers during the strike.
The new contracts have been released and the city received 67 bids last week, including 32 new submissions and 10 from companies who only do pre-K contracts—proof that the new contracts, which don’t include the provisions, are working as they were intended to, said Walcott.
Along with shaking up a system that typically awarded contracts to the same companies without competition, the city could save over $100 million on the 1,100 routes being contracted out (overall cost: about $1 billion). New contracts for pre-K routes, for about 800 routes worth over $475 million, saved the city $95 million over five years, according to a Department of Education spokesperson.