NEW YORK CITY — More than 8,000 school bus drivers went on strike Wednesday morning, leaving thousands of families scrambling to get to school in atrocious weather conditions.
School bus drivers began picketing at depots before dawn as parents of approximately 150,000 students who rely on yellow buses began charting ways to get their kids to class in freezing rain.
“It’s not a good day for our parents and our students,” Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott said during an early-morning appearance on ABC 7. “We understand the first couple days are really going to be rough."
Striking drivers from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 tried to block gates at four bus depots in the city, preventing drivers from other unions from departing on their routes, the Department of Education said.
Police had to intervene to allow the drivers from other unions to head out to pick up kids, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.
"That is illegal," Bloomberg said in an afternoon press conference. "The NYPD was called in to intervene so that buses could roll out and start picking up students, many of whom may have been standing out in this morning's freezing rain with their parent, waiting for their rides to school."
At least 3,000 of the city's school bus routes were able to run on Wednesday, but thousands more did not, officials said.
The strike left frenzied parents making morning detours, missing work and schlepping kids on subways and city buses.
“Its very stressful,” said Carin van der Donk, who founded Common Sense Busing, an advocacy group for parents using the transportation.
“For the parents, this is a nightmare. A lot of them are very, very stressed out and upset and hope it’s not going to last three months," she said.
The last school bus driver strike, in 1979, lasted 14 weeks.
In Queens, Fatima McNeil of Astoria crowded onto the Q69 bus Wednesday morning with her son, Amir, a second grader at P.S. 17 on 29th Street.
The MTA bus was already packed with other kids and parents trying to get to school.
"It's a mess," she said.
The situation was especially stressful for parents trying to juggle multiple children at different schools.
Rosina Mendez said she had no way to get her son, Jordan, 8, a second grader, to P.S. 17, and his older brother, Carlito, to his special-needs school in Westchester. In the end, she decided to keep Carlito, 11, home from school and take Jordan via city bus.
“If I was to take a cab, it’s $100,” said Mendez, who lives in the Astoria Houses. But that also meant she had to take a day off work at Elmhurst Hospital.
“I have to miss work myself,” she said. “My kids come first."
In Jackson Heights, Bobby Piniero, 43, was scraping ice off his car around 8:20 a.m. so he could drive his daughter, Evelyn, 6, to school at P.S. 290.
"I had to change my whole schedule around, my whole routine in the morning," said Piniero, a school guidance counselor.
"It's annoying," agreed East Village mom Raquel Pizarro, whose son, 5, has autism. She said she relies on a special-needs school bus to get him to P.S. 94.
"He needs the safety of the regular school bus because sometimes he gets angry," said Pizarro, whose husband shelled out $10 for a cab ride to take the boy to school.
The DOE will be reimbursing parents for cab fare or mileage, and has distributed MetroCards to students and parents who usually rely on buses to get to school. But some of those MetroCards may not work on city buses until Thursday, the DOE warned.
In Harlem, parent Elina Jimenez said she felt lucky to live close enough to school to be able to walk her son to school at I.S. 210, but was frustrated the strike had hit along with frigid weather.
"Today is the worst day for a strike. It's cold, it's frozen and hard to get around," she said. "Most of the kids on the buses have special needs so I feel very sorry for them and their parents."
Some students were also feeling the pinch.
Eighth grader Kayla Lugl, 13, who normally gets bused from the Lower East Side to her school, which is temporarily being housed in P.S. 158 on the Upper East Side, said she couldn't finish her homework Tuesday night because she had to go to sleep early and had to skip breakfast Wednesday morning because her commute was an extra hour long.
“I’m probably going to fall asleep in class. I’m very tired,” said Lugl, who hoped the buses would be back up-and-running soon. "I have to get all my homework done. I have to get more sleep.”
Others simply chose to keep their kids at home.
At P.S. 111 in Hell's Kitchen, which buses in many students from the Bronx, the consensus among parents was that many kids would not be coming to school.
"A lot aren't going to make it today," said Ulisee Gonzalez, who was dropping off his two daughters at the school.
"It's rough for a lot of parents, they work," he said. "But I understand the strike too."
The city and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 are locked in a bitter battle over guaranteed job protections as the Department of Education seeks to bid out new contracts for 1,100 bus routes for children with special needs to save cash.
But the union is demanding the new contacts include job protections for their 7,700 existing workers — protections city officials say they are legally barred from offering.
“This is not a decision that we have arrived at lightly, but an action we must take," the union's leader, Michael Cordiello, said ahead of the strike.
At a bus depot it Ridgewood, Queens, about 100 protesters gathered, waving placards.
"What do we want? Justice!" they chanted,
Kathleen Barron, 48, a bus matron who spent 16 years on the job, said that workers deserved protections.
“We love our jobs. We don’t want to leave our children behind. But we have our own children and have to survive," she said.
Cordiello slammed the mayor at the rally and said that eliminating the protections would put children at risk.
"It's unfortunate that those that are hurt most by the mayor’s actions and the chancellor’s actions are the city's most vulnerable school children and their parents," he said, urging the city to come back to the negotiating table.
The DOE says the city's busing costs have spiked from $71 million in 1979 to $1.1 billion today, and maintains the protections the union is seeking have been barred by the courts.
Parents were divided Wednesday, but many blamed the city for the impasse.
"As much as it inconveniences me, I get why they're doing it," said East Harlem stay-at-home mom Cynthia Aguilar, 34, who said the bus strike threw off the routine of her 17-year-old autistic son, but sympathized with the demands of striking bus drivers and matrons.
"Our kids deserve an education and the drivers deserve job security," she said, after using a car service to drop off her son Darien at the Association for Metro-Area Autistic Children on West 17th Street.
Mayor Bloomberg, meanwhile, dug in his heels.
“We couldn’t change our mind and cave if we wanted to,” he told FOX 5’s Good Day NY. “There’s only a certain amount of money.”
The strike was expected to impact about 8,000 drivers and matrons from 1181, who make up about 70 percent of the city's driver force.
Still, some buses were spotted across the city during the morning rush.
Olga Catala, 51, a union member who drives a school bus in Brooklyn, said she decided to drive her kids to P.S. 20 in Fort Greene and P.S. 56 in Clinton Hill, despite the strike.
"I decided to stand by my company," she said. "I didn't think it was right to leave these kids without a ride to school."
As of 7 a.m., approximately 4,700 of the city's 7,700 bus routes were out of commission, a Department of Education spokeswoman said.
Many school bus companies are opposed to the strike, which they claim isn't fair because drivers work for them — not the city. The New York City School Bus Drivers Coalition filed two unfair labor practice charges against the contractors Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the companies said.
Gaysee Davis, 43, of Bed-Stuy, who works for Thomas Bus Company and belongs to one of the non-striking unions, said she supports her fellow bus drivers, but was frustrated by the timing of the strike.
“It hasn’t yet been three months after Sandy," she said as she stopped to drop off six elementary special-needs students at P.S. 114 in the Rockaways, Queens.
"I understand you want to strike, but wait to do it."
It was unclear Wednesday how long the strike might last. Bus companies intend to begin training replacement drivers, but that process is expected to take several weeks.
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