New York City’s school bus drivers and matrons, the people designated to escort students on and off buses, attracted worldwide headlines with a strike action last week. Most of those headlines focused on the inconvenience created by the strike, profiling parents who were angered by the extra steps they had to take to get their children to school, including parents who couldn’t get their kids to school at all. Disabled students in particular had an extremely hard time getting to school because so much of New York City is inaccessible.
Such media framing of labor actions is extremely common, and the result is that readers and viewers instinctively side against the union and its employees, arguing that they are inconveniencing ordinary people with their demands. Few, however, stop to take a look at why the union is protesting, and why paying attention to the concerns of the union might yield a different side of the story.
The subject of dispute in this particular case is the city’s proposal to replace its school bus contracts with less costly bids, in an attempt to save money. Like many U.S. cities, New York is struggling to balance its budget, and it has concerns about the extremely high per-student cost for bussing services; it wants to retain those services, but fears it can’t do so at the current cost. What the union is asking for is the retention of Employee Protection Provisions (EPP) in the bidding for bus contracts.
Simply stated, these provisions state that senior experienced personnel cannot be replaced by cheaper labor. From the perspective of workers and the union, obviously this is about job security, but it’s also about more than that. It’s about student safety, particularly the safety of the very same disabled students who’ve become subjects of media profiles. The union and some parents are concerned that drivers who are paid less will not have the same training and experience existing staff do, and that could put students at risk.
Lest you think union members are making unreasonable demands, their pay scale is shockingly modest: “Driversí starting wage is $14 an hour. Aides make $11. When workers get to the top of the wage scale, they are making about $40,000 per year, a modest salary in a city with a notoriously high cost of living.” Meanwhile, drivers, aides and matrons get to know their routes, and, critically, their students, by heart. People are not in this job for the money.
Disabled students may have specific medical needs that can’t be met by just any contractor, and special training is required to make sure that bus personnel can keep these students safe and comfortable for the ride to and from school. Matrons and drivers become part of a caregiving network that supports students and ensures they have access to an education and the services they need. Some parents are siding with the bus personnel, noting that they want experienced, trained people who know their kids taking them to school.
Writing for AlterNet, Molly Knefel notes that the bus strike reflects the consequences of centering austerity in U.S. social policy, and it’s telling that disabled children are being expected to pay the price for austerity measures. As she points out, disruptions in routine can be devastating for disabled students, which is exactly why they need trained, familiar faces on their bus routes every morning, something that would change radically under a low-cost labor contract with high turnover and no protections for senior personnel. Disabled children in the U.S. have already faced heavy budget cuts to the services they rely on, and children in general are suffering under austere social policies.
While this strike is in New York, it highlights larger issues going on across the United States. The safety and wellbeing of our children should be a priority, but policies endangering them are growing distressingly common. Members of labor unions who work with children, such as nurses, teachers, and more, aren’t just fighting for job security: they’re also fighting to protect kids. And they need parents to join them.
Photo credit: Alex Starr