Looming over Thursday’s start of the 2023-24 school year is the potential crisis of a school bus strike, which could leave over 150,000 children stranded. The Amalgamated Transit Union 1181, representing more than 8,000 school bus drivers, mechanics, and escorts, has decided to take drastic measures. They are demanding more than the city’s “pattern” contract talks offer to other workers, including higher raises and the restoration of employee privileges that were eliminated a decade ago. The union is aware of the negative perception of this tactic and plans to order half of its members to continue working while the other half goes on strike. However, this still leaves tens of thousands of students, including those with special needs, without transportation.
The threat of a school bus strike also impacts the 16 Department of Education-contracted bus companies, including NYC School Bus Umbrella Services. This city-run nonprofit took over Reliant Transportation, which owns 1,000 school buses, for $890 million in 2021. In addition to wage demands, ATU 1181 is also pushing for the reinstatement of Employee Protection Provisions, which required new bus companies to hire drivers and attendants at the same seniority levels and pay and benefits scales as the previous contractor. These provisions were established after a strike in 1979 but ended in the early 2010s under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The union attempted to regain these provisions through a strike in 2013, but the effort failed. The City Council and then-Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to reintroduce them in 2014 with a $35 million annual subsidy for bus companies, but this system proved unfeasible.
ATU 1181 argues that the city is experiencing a shortage of school bus drivers due to inadequate pay and benefits. In the event of a driver strike, the city has contingency plans in place, such as providing students with MetroCards and reimbursing them for alternative transportation, which could include free ride-share services. The union emphasizes the importance of their work in transporting the city’s most valuable cargo, but it is worth noting that employee protection provisions are unique to New York City, as other cities successfully transport children to school without them. Taking students hostage has proven unsuccessful in the past, and it appears that the union is willing to disrupt public schools and families’ lives in hopes of achieving their demands. Instead, it would be more honorable for ATU 1181 to continue negotiations past the school opening date, September 7, until an agreement is reached.