More than a dozen drivers and matrons grilled Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott at a Community Education Council 31 meeting at P.S. 58, New Springville, Wednesday — and said workers citywide are set to vote on strike action this week.
They told the education chief they were ready to take their buses off the road to protest any changes.
But Walcott denied any knowledge of the proposals.
"You're so far ahead of the issue that the DOE is not even aware of the issue," Walcott said. "So any issue that is being talked about is not an issue."
The strike talk was triggered by the city's removal of job protection for senior union members when the city put out bids last year for a new yellow bus contract for special needs kindergarten and pre-k kids.
Union members said by removing the Employee Protection Provisions, the city will be able to hire lower-skilled drivers and matrons for less pay, driving down current drivers' salaries.
But Walcott said that the aim of the bids is not to hurt current drivers and matrons, but to save the city money while providing the best services.
"Our goal is not taking a hit on matrons and bus drivers," he said. "It's to put these contracts out and put the best service and the most cost-efficient service for our school systems."
However, Walcott's comments did little to quell the discontent of the drivers in attendance.
"He didn't answer our questions," said union driver Ernie Maione, 60, of Huguenot. "This is not about the money, all it is about is the opportunity to keep our jobs."
Maione said that he doesn't know how Walcott is unaware of strike rumblings, because his union president told him about their plans.
"If he's saying he doesn't know about it, it's pretty sad," Maione said. "Our president told him if you don't put the EPP back in the contracts, you're going to have 16,000 members walking the street."
Local 1181 of the Amaglamated Transit Union threatened to go on strike late last year when the DOE first removed the EPP from the bids.
Last year, DOE officials said the city tried to include the seniority provisions when it began negotiating a contract with the union in 2008, but were stopped by a judge who ruled in June 2011 that such guarantees were prohibited because they hindered competition.
DOE officials also said that hiring a new provider would not impact bus driver standards or regulations, because those must be adhered to by union and non-union drivers.
The seniority provisions allow union bus drivers to move from one company to the next, keeping his or her pay and pensions.
Maione said strike votes were scheduled to start at companies across the five boroughs this week.