New York City’s yellow school bus drivers are taking the concept of wanting what they can’t have to a whole new level.
The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1181 has authorized a strike that it says will begin on Wednesday morning. The ATU is demanding that the city include special employee protections in the competitive bidding that it recently opened up for 1,100 of the 7,700 school bus routes. These 1,100 routes serve 22,500 special needs children that attend the city’s public schools.
There’s just one problem: The city isn’t legally allowed to grant those employee protections. The New York Court of Appeals (the highest level court in the state) in 2011 said that the rules, known as Employee Protection Provisions (EPPs) are not permissible because they can harm the public when they are a required part of a competitive bidding process.
Despite the impossibility of meeting their demands, Local 1181 will be stranding most of the 152,000 New York City students that take the bus to school each morning. (Ironically, NY1 reports that buses for special needs students will still run during the strike.)
The NYC Department of Education (DOE) is legally barred from appeasing Local 1181. The battle over EPPs is an old one — one that was at the heart of the last school bus strike in 1979. As the Court of Appeals’ June 2011 decision explains, the city’s DOE moved to eliminate seniority practices in its bid solicitations, prompting the ATU to walk off the job for three months. In the wake of the strike, the DOE accepted EPPs. As the Court said, “the EPPs established a master seniority list, requiring contractors with the Board to give priority in hiring to employees on the list when such employees become unemployed because of reassignment of busing contracts.” When the DOE wanted to include EPPs in the competitive bidding for new Pre-K busing contracts, transportation vendors sued the DOE, saying that EPPs were anticompetitive and harmed the public.
The Court agreed, siding with the vendors over the DOE and Local 1181, which intervened in the case. Rejecting the claims that EPPs were similar to the permissible Project Labor Agreements (PLAs), the Court stated that the two were only comparable “in their status as atypical, patently restrictive, comprehensive pre-bid specifications and in their potential for anticompetitive consequences.” The Court even noted that the DOE provided no examples of any other school districts in the country that included provisions akin to the EPPs.
It wouldn’t take a great leap of faith to see how EPPs and ATU Local 1181’s contracts have affected the cost of busing. At $1.1 billion for the entire contract, the cost comes to approximately $6,900 per student. Los Angeles estimates its per pupil cost at $3,100.
Consider that a 2-mile taxi ride from Union Square to Times Square—right through the heart of Midtown Manhattan—would cost roughly $4,600 for an entire school year. And that includes a generous 20 percent tip for the cabbie. If students paid the full fare for a subway or public bus trip each way to school, the cost would be only $810 per year.
Of course, Local 1181 knows all of this, and at the heart of this debate is the union’s distaste that the city dare to consider more cost-effective alternatives. When the city submitted the Pre-K busing contract for competitive bidding, the city saved $95 million over five years.
Instead of facing these realities, the 9,000 drivers and matrons of Local 1181 will likely strike tomorrow morning, all for the sake of preserving seniority rules the city can’t legally give them.