“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.”
So said five Democratic candidates for mayor — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, former Comptroller Bill Thompson and former Councilman Sal Albanese — in a letter that urged Amalgamated Transit Union 1181 to end the school bus strike it had inflicted on the city for five weeks.
The ill-advised strike ended Wednesday, enabling about 150,000 students, many with special needs, and their families to get back to normal. It was a complete failure for the union, aside from the just-as-ill-advised promise issued by the mayoral hopefuls.
The strike was called because the city, in a well-justified effort to save money, announced that it would put certain school bus routes out to bid for the first time in more than 30 years. And that it would do so without the employee protection provisions that previously ensured workers would keep their jobs no matter which companies won contracts. It did that because the state’s highest court had previously ruled that the provisions are illegal, a decision that dovetailed nicely with the city’s drive to protect the taxpayers.
Enter the five candidates who collectively pledged to reinstate employee protections. They paid lip service to fiscal responsibility, but lip service is all it was. Don’t believe it.
The amount the city pays for school busing is ridiculous, last year reaching $1.1 billion, an average cost of $7,000 per student. In Chicago, the cost is $5,000 per student, while in Los Angeles it’s $3,200. So if New York could get away with paying the same rate as Chicago, it would save more than $300 million a year. If it could match LA, the savings would reach nearly $600 million per annum.
That would pay for a lot of those fire companies, libraries, senior centers, school arts and music programs, police officers and all the rest that are always on the chopping block due to skyrocketing nondiscretionary spending — largely employee and retiree healthcare and pension costs.
Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota is one who recognizes this reality. “I find it appalling and disrespectful that five Democrat candidates for mayor would pledge to put the desires of a union ahead of the needs of all New Yorkers in a joint letter just as they learned the strike was coming to an end,” Lhota said. “This is simply further proof that these candidates are beholden to union interests.” Exactly. And there are many other unions whose contracts are overdue and are likely to be drawn up by the next administration.
During the strike, the union claimed the city didn’t care about the safety of the children. It ran distasteful radio ads with audio clips of news reports about school bus accidents playing over a haunting rendition of “The Wheels on the Bus.” The point was that only the most experienced drivers and bus aides — all union members with job protections — can keep the children safe. No doubt that scared some people, but it’s pure propaganda. Surely there are many fine would-be drivers out there hoping their firms win a contract.
It cost the city about $20 million to give the kids MetroCards or pay for taxis, or reimburse their parents for driving them to school, and yet it saved $80 million by not paying the drivers — meaning the taxpayers came out $60 million ahead. That just illustrates how out of control costs become without competition. Here, the union’s loss was the taxpayers’ win. That’s something to remember come November.