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Bus drivers’ strike strands Queens students

Rob Aiello adjusts his daughter Jessie's backpack as he drops her off at school in Astoria. The kindergarten student normally takes the school bus. Photo by Christina Santucci
TimesLedger Newspapers

Union bus drivers’ decision to go on strike Wednesday morning marked the beginning of a new reality for more than 152,000 city students who were left without rides to school.

Rose Morrow stood outside PS 177 in Auburndale as she saw her son Anthony off to school — a task that was normally taken on by his bus driver. The school, like many others throughout the city, reported 13 bus service disruptions because of the strike.

“This is going to drastically change the way I go about my mornings,” Morrow said. “It’s just unfair. Their decision to strike falls directly onto the shoulders of the parents.”

Leaders of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 have been in an ongoing public labor dispute with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city Department of Education for several months now and spent the last week threatening to strike if they were not promised certain job guarantees in new contracts. When Wednesday morning arrived, the drivers lived up to those threats.

“This is not a decision we arrived at lightly, but it is an action we must take,” said Michael Cordiello, ATU 1181 president. “The mayor can end the strike by negotiating with us.”

Outside Atlantic Express bus depot in Ridgewood, Cordiello said the union was prepared to strike until contracts included a jobs guarantee in the form of an Employee Protection Provision, which Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said was impossible after a 2011 state Court of Appeals ruling blocked it specifically for pre-kindergarten bus contracts.

In Astoria, about two dozen drivers and escorts picketed in front of Rainbow, Citywide and All American bus companies Wednesday morning. Workers estimated that more than 600 people were employed at the site.

Howard Beach native Dominic Agate, who has been a school bus driver for the past 18 years and now serves as a union organizer, said he and other employees are periodically and randomly tested to assess and refresh their skills.

“You are putting your city and your children at harm here because most of them aren’t qualified drivers like we are,” he said about the possibility of other companies winning the city schools’ bus driving contracts.

Astoria resident Crystal Ocasio, who has worked as a bus escort for the last 15 years, said she often feels unsafe on her route.

“We don’t have metal detectors but [Bloomberg] he is going to tell us that we should risk our lives and get on the bus and do this job for a fraction of what we get paid, which is already a mere fraction?” she asked. Walcott said city schools have taken several precautions to help ease the commuting troubles of students, such as providing them and their parents with free MetroCards, but to meet the union’s demands he and Bloomberg said they would have to reach beyond the scope of the law.

“We have told the unions in unequivocal terms: Do not walk out on our students,” Bloomberg said. “A strike would be not only unfair to children and families, it would be totally misguided because the city cannot legally offer what the unions are demanding.”

The strike affects more than 152,000 students, 54,000 of whom have disabilities and require special transportation arrangements, Walcott said.

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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