CITY HALL — Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott and Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned Friday of "the strong possibility of an immediate system-wide" school bus strike — potentially leaving 150,000 kids without a way to get to and from school.
But hours later, school bus union reps hinted that they city may have jumped the gun, saying that while a work stoppage is "likely" soon unless the city agrees to its contract demands, it had no "immediate" plans to strike.
"Although Mayor Bloomberg’s failure to put the safety of New York City children first makes a strike likely, there are no immediate plans for one," said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello said.
Still, letters expressing concern about the possibility of a stoppage were sent home with kids Friday afternoon in anticipation of the worst.
“We are deeply concerned about the impact of a strike on our students and families and we want you to be prepared in the event one occurs,” Walcott wrote.
While Walcott and Bloomberg could not provide a time line for when a strike might occur, they said the school bus union had threatened Thursday that it planned to disrupt or cease service entirely unless the city included job guarantees for current workers in a bid released Friday for a new contract to bus special needs kindergarten and Pre-K kids in the 2012 school year.
The debate centers on whether the city should include an "Employee Protection Provision" in its new contract, which would guarantee current workers jobs even if a new company is chosen to run the routes.
DOE officials said the city had tried to include such a guarantee last time it negotiated a contract with the union in 2008, but that a judge ruled in June that the guarantees aren't allowed because they hinder open competition.
"The law mandates that we seek bids from bus companies in a competitive fashion. It prohibits us from doing what the union wants. So the union is threatening an illegal strike that would harm the education of more than 152,000 students if it doesn't get its way. And that’s just outrageous," said Bloomberg, who said the city would filed an unfair labor charge with the National Labor Relations Board and ask for an injunction.
City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo said that any strike by the union would be illegal because the drivers are employed by bus companies, not the city.
The union, meanwhile, maintained that the provision is necessary to ensure that drivers have enough experience to keep kids safe after the current contract expires in June.
"The casting away of experienced, well-trained employees in favor of companies who are simply seeking to provide bare-bones service at the lowest possible cost is a risky, ill-conceived public policy that directly threatens the safety and security of our children," they wrote, comparing the potential results to the under-regulated intercity bus industry.
A DOE spokeswoman said that hiring a new provider would have no impact on bus driver standards or regulations.
In the event that a strike does occur, the city has put together a plan to help parents get kids to school:
• Students who are usually bused from school bus stops will be issued free Metrocards, which will be distributed at schools.
• Parents whose children receive transportation from their homes, as well as parents of kids in kindergarten through second grade, will also be provided Metrocards so they can escort their kids to and from school.
• The Department of Education has already spent $1.3 million to purchase 300,000 cards in case a strike does occur, a spokeswoman said.
• The city is also offering to fully reimburse transportation costs, including gas and cab fare, for kids who have Individualized Education Plans that require transportation to and from their homes.
• Kids who arrive up to two hours late to school will be excused. If they can’t get there at all, they will be marked absent, but the missed day will not be counted on their records.
Walcott said that the city must sign a new contract soon and said he hopes the union will reconsider its stance.
“We still hope for the best, but the union has left us no choice to prepare for the worst," he added, slamming the threat as "nothing short of shameful."
“This action will most definitely be disruptive."
Several bus companies which would be affected by the strike have also joined the city in denouncing the union's threats.
"As the city’s largest school bus provider, Atlantic Express is vehemently opposed to a systemwide strike by ATU Local 1181 and we will do everything in our power to legally prevent our employees from violating their collective bargaining agreement, including going to the court for an immediate injunction," President and CEO Domenic Gatto said in a statement, calling it "irresponsible to strike the whole system because of the concerns of current Pre-K bid issues."
Atlantic Express Transportation Corp., Consolidated Bus Transit, Pioneer Transportation and Varsity Bus also issued a joint statement saying, "It is is everyone’s best interest that cooler heads prevail and our drivers and matrons stay on the job while the Pre-K bid EPP issue is worked out."
The city currently spends about $5 million-a-day on school buses, which serve public, charter and private schools.
According to the DOE, school bus costs have risen from $512.8 million in 2002 to $980 million this past year.
The city's last bus strike was in 1979 and lasted about three months, the spokeswoman said.