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As bus bidding opens, Bloomberg again warns of a strike

The city opened up competitive bidding on contracts for more than 1,000 school bus routes today, moving forward with a plan that bus drivers have threatened to strike over for more than a year.

The labor dispute is over job protection for current drivers once the new contracts are awarded. The bus drivers’ union, the Amalgamated Transit Union’s Local 1181, wants a guarantee that current employees won’t lose their jobs regardless of which contractors win the bids. But the city, citing a New York State Court of Appeals decision last year, says it is legally prohibited from providing a protection in its new request for bids.

Last November, Local 1181 President Michael Cardiello said a strike was “likely” if the city refused to budge from its position. Cardiello hasn’t repeated the threat for nearly a year, and today Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the union’s demand “pointless”.

Bloomberg also issued a preemptive warning to parents and principals, saying there was a “strong possibility” of a work stoppage when students return to class in the new year.

“That would make it a lot harder for many students to get to school – and in a year when our students have already missed a week or more of school because of Hurricane Sandy – striking against our school children, we think, would be totally irresponsible,” Bloomberg said at a press conference.A strike would affect 152,000 of the city’s 1.1 million students, including more than 50,000 public and private school students with special needs, according to the city.

It’s not the first time that the city has warned of a strike. In response to Cardiello’s threat last year, Bloomberg called a strike “imminent,” though it never materialized. Union officials later criticized Bloomberg for exaggerating their threat.

Update: Local 1182 spokeswoman Maggie McKeon said in a statement the new contracts would endanger children because less experienced and less qualified bus drivers would be behind the wheel.

“We are weighing all of our options, and are prepared to take any action necessary to protect the safety and security of New York City school children,” McKeon said.

Bloomberg said today that he’s taking the new possibility of a strike seriously. Principals received MetroCards for students and sent home letters notifying parents about preparations that the Department of Education was taking. Families who drive their own children to school will also be reimbursed.

The new contracts are for 1,100 routes that serve 22,000 students who receive special education services. Mayor Bloomberg said he hopes the new bids will reduce the rising costs of student transportation, which last year was $1.1 billion — or about 4 percent of the education department’s budget.

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