NEW YORK CITY — The school bus drivers' strike is over, union officials announced Friday night.
ATU Local 1181 called off the nearly month-long strike and said drivers will head back to work Wednesday morning, after weeks of unsuccessful picketing in an attempt to win job protections from the Bloomberg administration.
"Our top priority is the safe transport to and from school of our City’s children," Michael Cordiello, president of ATU Local 1181, said in a statement. "With that in mind, our Executive Board voted earlier this afternoon to suspend the five week strike."
The move came after a handful of Democratic mayoral candidates penned a letter to the union Thursday night promising to revisit the bus contracts once Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves office, and urging the union's members to go back to work in the meantime.
“It is significant to us that the next mayor of New York has already recognized the principles of fairness that are required to govern a city, and that those we employ to serve our children deserve a fair days pay for a fair days work," ATU International President Larry Hanley said in a statement, assuming that a Democrat will be elected mayor.
“We view this request to suspend the current strike as an earnest effort on behalf of the city, its children and its workers."
Nearly 8,000 of the city’s school bus drivers and matrons had been on strike since Jan. 16, sending parents scrambling to find alternatives for more than 150,000 kids, including many special needs students.
In their letter to the union, the candidates, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, expressed their solidarity with the drivers, but said they were increasingly concerned about the impact the strike was having on public school kids, parents and drivers, as it entered its fifth week.
"At this time...with an intransigent administration...we call upon you and your members to return to their jobs and continue the battle in other ways," wrote Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, City Comptroller John Liu, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson and former City Councilman Sal Albanese.
"We know this is not an easy decision. But we pledge, if elected, to revisit the school bus transportation system and contracts."
The strike was prompted by the city's decision to put contracts for 1,100 special needs bus routes up for bid for the first time in 33 years.
The city's busing costs have spiked from $71 million in 1979 to $1.1 billion today, according to the Department of Education, which maintains the approximately $6,900 per student could be better spent in the classroom.
But the new contracts do not include job protections for current workers, which the union threatened would put experienced drivers out of work and compromise kids' safety.
Nonetheless, the DOE has moved forward with the process and announced this week that it had received 65 bids for the contracts. Some are “dramatically” cheaper than the current contracts, Bloomberg said Friday during his weekly radio show with WOR's John Gambling.
“We think we’ll save tens of millions of dollars,” he said.
Bloomberg released a statement Friday evening saying he was pleased with the strike's end.
"For decades, the monopolistic bus contract process benefited the bus companies and unions at the expense of the city’s taxpayers and students — but no longer," Bloomberg said.
"We appreciate the hard work our bus drivers and matrons do and we welcome them back to the job. In the city’s entire history, the special interests have never had less power than they do today, and the end of this strike reflects the fact that when we say we put children first, we mean it.”
During his State of the City speech on Thursday, a defiant Bloomberg told union members their strike was a “lost cause."
“If you notice, we haven’t had a lot of political support in taking this issue on. But that’s exactly why we’re doing it: because it’s the right thing to do and if we don’t do it now it may never get done," he said.
Cordiello, the union leader, countered in a statement Friday that union bus drivers make an average of $35,000 per year, which is not an exorbitant amount.
“Though our strike has been suspended, the principles that we fight for remain pressing issues that the City will have to address," Cordiello said. "The fact is, a safe workforce is an experienced workforce and the Employee Protection Provisions currently included in the City’s busing contracts protect our most experienced drivers, matrons, and mechanics — and have created one of the safest workforces in the entire country."
School bus companies, which opposed the strike and called it "pointless" in a statement Friday evening, had been trying to certify replacement workers, but approximately 4,558 of the city's 7,700 school bus routes remained out of commission Thursday, according to the DOE.
While most of the city's public school students are back at school, special education attendance has lagged behind, with less than 78 percent of District 75 students in attendance Thursday.
Schools will be closed Monday and Tuesday for mid-winter recess.