At first, the picket line at the school bus yard at Zerega and Haviland Avenues in the Bronx went around the clock. After a couple of weeks, it reduced its hours to 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. On Friday afternoon, after four weeks and two days on strike, the picketers went home.
“If the union wants us to go back [to work], we’ll go back,” said picket captain Vincent Cristiano minutes before the picket line shut down. Clearly, he was aware that his statement foreshadowed what was ahead. Less than a half hour after he spoke with PIX11 News, the call came from union headquarters to send the picketers home.
Union leaders had a conference call with members at 7:00 P.M. Friday. In it, Amalgamated Transit Union President Michael Cordiello told workers, “our Executive Board voted earlier this afternoon to suspend the five week strike, and return to work on Wednesday, February 20th.” A written statement from Cordiello after the call confirmed it.
The move ending the strike that began on January 16 comes in the wake of union leaders receiving support from all of the candidates they feel may lead the city when Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s third term ends at the end of the year.
“Late last night, I received a letter signed by all of the serious candidates for Mayor of New York City,” ATU International President Larry Hanley said in a written statement Friday morning. “City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill DiBlasio, Comptroller John Liu, former New York City Comptroller Bill Thompson, and former City Councilman Sal Albanese – all pledging support for the principles for which our members are currently fighting.”
Specifically, the candidates, all Democrats, expressed support for school bus drivers and matrons keeping their employee protection provision, or EPP, which protects job seniority. Mayor Bloomberg had said repeatedly during the strike that state law does not allow the city to uphold such a provision in labor contracts.
The strike that left about 150,000 families either keeping children home, or struggling to find their own transportation ended not a day too soon for many people. Tensions had been rising among drivers and matrons, after some of their non-unionized fellow workers stayed on the job, while strikers had to subsist on strike pay.
“Why did you take my picture?” one working driver who had spoken earlier with PIX11 on Friday shouted at a unionized, striking driver minutes later. The union driver had angrily snapped a smartphone photo of the non-striking worker in front of a school minutes before the elementary students there were dismissed.
Meanwhile, at the Zerega Avenue bus lot, the strike captain put words to the tension that exists between drivers who stayed on the job and those that did not.
“We want to go back to work,” Cristiano said. “We need the money.”
He also pointed out that some of the private bus companies that hold contracts with the city’s Department of Education and employ unionized workers had begun hiring non-unionized, untrained workers. It was happening, Cristiano told PIX11, while union workers who had weeks of training and years of experience had to stand and watch as the inexperienced, non-union drivers rolled by.
It did not appear that Republican mayoral candidate and former MTA chairman Joe Lhota had expressed support for the striking workers. One thing was clear, though. The bus drivers’ union and its membership were by no means pleased with how the current mayor handled the labor dispute that had lasted more than a month.
“A few things are decidedly clear,” Cordiello said in a statement on Friday afternoon, “that Mayor Bloomberg has shown an alarming lack of leadership throughout this entire process, instead opting to divide our city. He has put the children, especially those who need the safety and experience that our membership provides the most, at risk.”
BELOW IS THE FULL STATEMENT FROM THE UNION
“Though our strike has been suspended, the principles that we fight for remain pressing issues that the City will have to address. 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.
“We continue to be dismayed by the Bloomberg Administration, which offered no assistance in bringing this strike to a close and furthermore, continued to mislead the public that the drivers, who make an average of $35,000/year and the matrons who make an at most $28,000/year, are somehow the driving force behind rising school bus transportation costs.
“In January when Mayor Bloomberg is gone, we are comfortable that his entire scheme will be rejected. We are grateful that so many elected leaders in this city are choosing the facts as a path to a conclusion, rather than a conclusion as a path to the facts.”