NEW YORK CITY — The school bus drivers' union plans to strike on Wednesday morning, leaving more than 150,000 students without rides to school, union leaders announced Monday afternoon.
“While we remain optimistic that we can reach an agreement, we are here today to announce that Local 1181 will strike effective Wednesday morning," at 6 a.m., said Michael Cordiello, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, which represents school bus drivers.
“This is not a decision that we have arrived at lightly, but an action we must take," Cordiello said.
The strike, which has been threatened since late December, is the result of a labor dispute between the bus drivers' union and the Department of Education, which is trying to save cash by bidding out new contracts for the first time in 33 years on 1,100 bus routes for children with special needs.
The city's busing costs have spiked from $71 million in 1979 to $1.1 billion today, according to the DOE, which maintains the approximately $6,900 per student could be better spent in the classroom.
But the union is demanding the new contracts include job protections for their 7,700 existing workers — protections city officials say they are legally barred from offering.
The union argues the city is wrong and warns the plans will leave the most vulnerable children in the care of private transit providers with unqualified drivers who don't have the training and experience that union drivers have.
"This is about safety and experience," said Cordiello. ”We handle and transport the most precious cargo in new York City," he said.
Cordiello argued that the city had not made a good-faith effort to negotiate, and called on the administration to come back to the table. Union leaders declined to say how long the strike could last, but noted the last strike lasted 14 weeks.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who appeared at a press conference earlier Monday, reacted to the announcement with outrage, calling it "irresponsible and misguided."
“With its regrettable decision to strike, the union is abandoning 152,000 students and their families who rely on school bus service each day," he said in a statement, noting that the city is now beginning to put contingency plans in place.
Earlier, he blamed the union fully for the impasse.
"This isn't about safety. It's about job protections the city cannot legally offer," he told reporters.
"In the year when our students have already missed a week or more of school because of Hurricane Sandy we certainly don't need to make it more difficult to get to school."
School bus companies also spoke out against the strike, which they claim isn't fair because drivers work for them — not the city. The New York City School Bus Contractors Coalition called the ATU strike "an unlawful secondary strike and we will immediately file unfair labor practice charges and civil lawsuits," in a statement.
"While we are the employers, this dispute is strictly between the Union and the City regarding the removal of the Employee Protection Provision from the upcoming bids," said a spokeswoman.
"Our hope is that a strike will be averted for the sake of the children and all who rely on this essential service."
The impending strike left parents across the city scrambling to figure out how their children would get back and forth to school.
Carin van der Donk, a parent and founder of Common Sense Busing, who attended a briefing in Midtown Monday morning with union officials, said she and others were preparing.
“Everybody acknowledges this is going to be very hard for the kids and the parents,” she said.
“It’s nerve-racking at this point," she said of the back-and-forths between the city and the union. “It’s been going on for a couple weeks now,” she said.
She said she and other parents have already been communicating via a giant email chain, trying to work out a carpooling plan.
“It is going be intense," she said. "There’s a lot of people trying to figure out if they can get a couple hours off from work in the morning."
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who also attended the morning meeting at the Sheraton Hotel on Seventh Avenue said she had not yet taken a position on the union's demands, but wished both sides would sit back down to talks.
"I personally really wish that everyone could get back around the table," she said.
Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said the city has been preparing a contingency plan to try to make parents' lives easier.
"Our goal is to make sure students get to school, and to pursue contracts that are safe and more reasonably priced, so that we can direct those savings in the classroom where they belong," he said in a statement.
BUS STRIKE CONTINGENCY PLAN:
♦ Schools' general offices will issue free MetroCards to students who normally take yellow bus service.
♦ Parents of K-2 students or children who normally require transportation directly to school may be issued an additional MetroCard to escort your child to school.
♦ Parents of children in grades K-6 for whom public transportation is not an option will be reimbursed for travel costs to school. Parents driving students will receive .55 cents per mile reimbursement, and cab costs will be reimbursed after filling out a form at the school.
♦ Students who are late because of the strike will be excused up to 2 hours, and all absences due to the strike will be recorded, but won't impact a student's attendance record.
♦ Afterschool programs will stay open, but no bus service will be provided.
♦ The NYPD will add transit officers and crossing guards to help manage the anticipated increase in the number students using public transportation and walking to school.
♦ The TLC will issue an alert to all taxi and livery licensees warning them to expect increased demand and to have the maximum number of cars available.
♦ The DOE will be posting materials online for every grade and core subject so that students who can't get to school can continue to learn at home during the strike.
The city urged parents to check www.schools.nyc.gov or call 311 for updates.