New York City—Over a month ago 8,800 school bus drivers, mechanics, and matrons—members of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) who are responsible for transporting New York’s children—went out on strike for the first time since 1979. This came after billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his intention to eliminate the “Employee Protection Provision” (EPP) of the union contract.
Over the last two years, Bloomberg sought to shred the EPP, which provides a measure of job security for workers by requiring private bus companies chartered by the city to hire according to seniority. Bloomberg’s goal was to liquidate the drivers’ seniority. Veteran drivers have priority in picking routes, building up rapport with parents and children alike. Bloomberg’s goal to break the union was evident when he put out a notice calling for new bids for the bus service.
The strikers kept up the picket lines through a cold New York winter, defying rain, snow, and Bloomberg. The decision to order the drivers and matrons back to work in February came without any input from the strikers. There was no discussion within the union, just an announcement that the strike was over and that the drivers should return to work. But the question that many are asking is: what went wrong?
Although the 8,800 members of Local 1181 stood strong and united, the same could not be said for other unions representing school bus drivers. A Teamsters local and another local with school bus drivers in its ranks both failed to honor the picket lines. That helped break the strike by easing up the pressure on Bloomberg.
When the strike began, the union strike fund was close to collapse, but New York’s other unions did not offer to help so that the workers could continue to stay out on strike. This lack of solidarity hurt the striking drivers and matrons.
At the end, union leaders were told by a number of Democratic Party politicians that if the union ended the strike and if one of them becomes mayor this year, they would “do right” by the union. But, as one union member put it, “Since when do we trust politicians, of any party?”
Not surprisingly, some of the bus companies are already starting to fire strikers, not individually but in large numbers. But as one former striker told me, although they lost the strike, it was important to fight, and that he was going to stay in the union.
All the ATU members can hope for now is that some Democratic Party politician will stand up for union rights if he or she is elected, a dubious proposition. The same politicians were nowhere to be seen during the strike, except at the end when they helped broker the sellout.