For Simon Jean-Baptiste, a veteran school bus driver who belongs to Local 1181, the city’s announcement Friday that his union could go on strike at any moment was news to him.
“It’s the city that we heard that from,” Jean-Baptiste said today.
Jean-Baptiste, a former vice president in the union, said he had no idea there was any kind of citywide strike threat until he first heard about it from media reports prompted by a last-minute press conference called by Mayor Bloomberg on Friday. Bloomberg warned that Local 1181′s leadership opposed the city’s plans for a new contract for pre-kindergarten bus drivers because the city would not guarantee job security for experienced drivers. As a result, he said, an “immediate” strike was possible.
At the same time, Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott sent a comprehensive plan to principals for how they should handle a strike should it occur.
Hours later, Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello said in a statement that a strike over seniority rights was “likely” but not imminent. Today, Cordiello said in a statement that the union was beginning to weigh its options.
“We do not want to strike, but we have been forced to keep our options open by cost-cutting proposals by Mayor Bloomberg,” he said.
As buses rolled up to schools on time this morning, and with no strike imminent, some are questioning the urgency with with Bloomberg and Walcott presented the threat.
The prospect of a school bus strike didn’t even register at a Panel for Educational Policy meeting Thursday evening, even though the group is responsible for voting on all busing contracts.
A PEP member, Patrick Sullivan, said he suspected that the Friday hype was meant to “demonize” the bus drivers union in order to turn public opinion against its demands.
“I think it’s appalling, really,” said Sullivan, a frequent critic of DOE policies. “[City officials] clearly had a whole plan of action planned and the next day they went out to the press and all of a sudden a strike was imminent. It seems the goal of it was to make parents afraid.”
Jean-Baptiste said union members would likely discuss the contract issue for the first time at a delegates meeting Tuesday evening.
“What is striking to me is that the city is panicking about whether there will be a strike, but the union never mentioned anything like that,” he said. “I think the city is spreading fear.”
That’s a view that Sam Pirozzolo, a parent leader on Staten Island, home to many of the bus contractors that do business with the city, expressed in an op-ed on Saturday. After speaking to union officials and quickly realizing that the threats were not as urgent as the city said, Pirozzolo wrote that he saw the press attention as meant “to instill fear throughout the city that a school bus strike was imminent.”
It isn’t the first time the bus drivers’ union has threatened to strike. It happened in 2006 and again when members authorized a strike last year (an actual strike hasn’t taken place in New York City since 1979). But this appears to be the first time in recent years that the city has worked to defuse a strike threat before union leaders even issued it publicly.
Education officials said the press conference was a direct response to what the bus drivers union had told them directly: that the drivers would strike systemwide.
“The purpose of the press conference was to inform parents about contingency plans and how they can prepare,” a DOE spokeswoman said.
Principals we contacted about the bus strike warnings offered a muted response, with one saying that the warnings were intense but not a distraction.
“It came amidst so much other business that it was hard to get too excited about,” emailed the principal, who works at a neighborhood school where few students ride school buses. She said her school had received Walcott’s letter and additional information about the threat three times.
“It did seem like a large reaction, but I guess I’d rather that they had a plan in place ahead of time than be left improvising after the fact, particularly in instances where there actually is advance knowledge.”