Why School Bus Drivers and Matrons Went on Strike in New York

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.

Related articles:

Record Number of Disabled Students Graduating, No Thanks to Republicans

Elite NYC Schools Must Admit More Students With Disabilities

Driver Kicks Autistic Girl Off Schoolbus, Literally

Photo credit: Alex Starr

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Past Member
Past Member 6 months ago

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Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

This proves my point...

Garnet Jenny Fulton
Past Member 2 years ago

I think keeping our kids safe in their travels is important, it doesn't make sense to do budget cuts here. We want employees that are responsible for taking family members to and from places to be happy because they have a great responsibility in their hands. Any motor vehicle can become a weapon, so why not support these dedicated workers who are up just as early as the parents and who care just as much as the teachers.

Sheri D.
Sheri D.2 years ago

Thanks for letting us know their side of the story.

Annmari Lundin
Annmari Lundin2 years ago

Anyone working in public service are somehow expected to take pay cuts and have worse working conditions than people in the private sector. Anytime public workers go on strike, there's always a media hype about how it affects others. Listen: If workers everywhere didn't fight for their rights, we would all be slaves to the corporations! I'm on the side of workers everywhere that fight to better conditions for themselves and future generations. Solidarity is International!

Ro H.
Ro H.2 years ago


Deanna C.
Deanna C.2 years ago

Keep on fighting for your rights, cheaper labor will not do the kids any good.

James O.
James O.2 years ago

The plain truth is that a guaranteed job results in higher costs and reduced incentives for high-quality perfornance. Governments and private businesses just can't affort this in today's increasingly competitive and cost-strapped economic environment.

a             y m.
g d c.2 years ago


J.L. A.
JL A.2 years ago

so sad the way media is allowed to frame issues in an unbalanced way