(Adds comments from the union)
By Edith Honan and Jonathan Allen
NEW YORK Jan 16 New York City school bus
drivers went on strike for the first time in 34 years, creating
headaches for up to 152,000 students in the nation's largest
public school system on a sleet-soaked Wednesday.
The strike was triggered by the city's decision to seek new,
less expensive contracts for routes that serve children with
special needs. The union representing bus drivers - who are
employed by private contractors, not the city - says the city is
unfairly blaming bus drivers for cost increases.
"What this is all about is that the mayor wants to bring
down wages of people making less than $40,000 a year," said
Larry Hanley, who heads the Amalgamated Transit Union.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the city had no choice
but to seek cheaper alternatives.
"This strike is about job security this union just can't
have," Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a news conference on
The city now pays $1.1 billion a year to school-bus
contractors, roughly $6,900 for each student - more than any
other U.S. city. Los Angeles, which pays the next highest rate,
spends $3,100 for each student, Bloomberg said.
"It is irrational for us to keep spending this much money if
there is an alternative," he said.
Bloomberg applauded parents for making sure their children
made it to school, saying attendance on Wednesday was just
slightly below average. About 11 percent of the city's 1.3
million school children were impacted.
Hanley said cost increases were due to the high cost of
delivering special needs children to schools. Those children are
often transported, curb-to-curb, in small numbers by two
professionals - a driver and a matron - to out-the-way school
facilities, Hanley said.
Hanley acknowledged his union has been "behind the curve" in
explaining its perspective to the public.
"TAKE A HIKE!"
"Take a Hike, Kid!" reads the front page of Wednesday's New
York Post, beside a picture of a glum young student with his
thumb raised, hitch-hiker style.
Many students who rely on yellow bus service received free
subway passes at school. Parents who drive their kids to school
or take them in taxis can be reimbursed.
Contracts to provide school bus services had not been
renegotiated in more than three decades before the city began
seeking competitive bids in December.
New York City bus drivers last went on strike in 1979. The
strike lasted three months.
Last year, a re-bidding of pre-kindergarten bus contracts, a
much smaller system, ended up saving the city $95 million over
five years, the officials said.
At that time, the state's Court of Appeals prevented the
city from offering any job guarantees when seeking bids. The
city says it is similarly restricted this time around.
At an 11th hour news conference on Tuesday, Bloomberg said
"the city cannot legally offer what the unions are demanding,"
and urged the union not to strike.
"Have you ever heard of a strike where one side is demanding
something that the courts have ruled illegal?" the mayor asked.
The union said the city has not considered all options open
The transit union is not alone in feuding this month with
City Hall: Bloomberg and the teachers union face a Thursday
deadline to reach a deal over a teacher evaluation system, and
$450 million in state money hangs in the balance.
Disagreements over teacher evaluations have caused clashes
across the country between cities and teachers unions. Last
year, the issue sparked a seven-day strike in Chicago.
At Wednesday's news conference, New York City Schools
Chancellor Dennis Wolcott said his department could handle both
the bus strike and teacher evaluations.
"I think we can multi-task very easily," he said.
(Additional reporting by Edith Honan and Chris Francescani;
Editing by W Simon and Andrew Hay)