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Unless the New York City Department of Education and the city’s yellow school bus drivers can reach an agreement, more 150,000 students will be left at the curb for the foreseeable future. For the first time since 1979, the city’s largest union for school bus drivers is on strike. The strike, which begins Wednesday morning, was announced on Monday by the drivers union, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. The union represents 8,800 drivers and matrons.

In dispute are the contracts for 1,100 bus routes servicing children with special needs, which are set to expire at the end of June. The city is putting the contracts up for competitive bid, without provisions that would guarantee union workers’ job security. Bloomberg hailed the bids as a cost-cutting measure Monday, noting that the city’s school bus contracts cost the city $1.1 billion a year.

The contracts’ employee protection provisions (EPPs), the sticking point in the strike, have a legal history that is being interpreted very differently by the city and the union.

Since 1979, EPPs for school bus drivers have meant that bus contractors must give priority, by seniority, to veteran drivers at the same pay and pension rate as their most recent jobs.

However, a 2011 decision by New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, found that over the decades, these EPPs “have had anticompetitive and cost-inflating effects.” In the case, the court ruled in favor of the bus companies that brought suit against the city, which had argued that the protection plans could cause bus companies to inflate their bids to accommodate the unknown extra costs of having to hire Local 1181 drivers.

Because of this decision, the city now says it cannot legally include EPPs in the upcoming contract.

By contrast, the union contends the Court of Appeals’ decision applies only to the pre-kindergarten bus contracts at issue in the lawsuit, not EPPs in other public school bus contracts.

“There’s never been a court decision that says all EPP’s are illegal,” Richard Gilberg, a lawyer for Local 1181, told WNYC’s Schoolbook.

These legal technicalities are being glossed over in the public barbs between the union and the city.

The union contends it is a matter of safety: that the employee protection provision keeps the most experienced, skilled drivers on the job.

Mayor Bloomberg has been quick to dismiss this idea.

“This isn’t about safety; it’s about job protections the City cannot legally offer,” he said Monday.

Each side is, unsurprisingly, quick to blame the other.

“Make no mistake, the union’s hand has been forced by Mayor Bloomberg,” said a post on the New York State AFL-CIO website.

Bloomberg, in turn, has accused the union of walking out on students.

During the strike, the city is offering free Metro Cards to students (and parents of children in kindergarten through second grade), as well as gas and taxi reimbursements. Students won’t be punished for being late or missing school due the strike.

For those unable make it to school without the yellow bus services, the DOE has posted educational materials for every grade online.

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