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What the Looming NYC School-Bus Strike Can Teach Us About the Real Impact of 'Austerity'

Those who claim to care about our children's safety often refuse to invest in it.

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The potential school bus strike looming over New York City right now is important. It is important regardless of where in the United States you live, and whether or not you have children. It is important even if you’re not a school-bus driver, or a union member or a child with special needs. The battle between the city and the bus drivers represents the supremacy of budgets over quality of life. It illustrates what happens when communities, jobs and families are devalued, marginalized and destroyed while the language of austerity reigns, infallible. And it illuminates the hypocrisy of those in power who claim to care for our children’s safety but refuse to invest in it.

The dispute is simple -- it’s about saving money. As New York City schools chancellor David Walcott has noted, the city has operated its school-bus contracts without any “significant competitive bidding” for 33 years. During that time, something called “Employment Protection Provisions” ensured job security for senior workers, even if the city changed bus companies -- meaning that experienced drivers were rehired year after year. But the contracts have gotten too pricey; more than twice what Los Angeles pays per student -- and the city now plans to offer the contracts to the “lowest responsible bidder.” The union representing the school-bus drivers, Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, is asking for Employment Protection Provisions to be included in the new contract to protect workers from losing their jobs to newer, cheaper labor. But due to a state court of appeals decision last year, in which the court ruled to exclude the provisions based on competitive bidding laws, the city says its hands are tied.

The city also denies the union's claims that the new contracts would decrease safety by replacing experienced drivers with new ones, insisting that training standards would be equally rigorous under the new contracts. The routes in question are 1,100 out of the city's total 7,700, serving 22,500 students with disabilities. If the strike happens, all 152,000 children who depend on buses to get to school would be affected.

Part of the significance of this dispute is that while the importance of job protections for current bus drivers is difficult to quantify, the city's need to reduce the budget is as plain and clear as the budget numbers themselves. In the face of the millions of dollars the city stands to save with cheaper contracts, why should it matter if, for example, 22,500 special-needs students find themselves with brand-new bus drivers one day?

It matters because how we treat those who care for certain children reflects how we value those children. It creates a system in which workers entrusted to be responsible for a child's safety are utterly replaceable in the name of protecting the bottom line. Bus drivers and matrons greet children in the morning and return them home in the afternoon and students with disabilities require specific knowledge, care and attention. Routine and stability are important to all children, but especially so to certain populations of special-needs children, including those with autism or emotional/behavioral disorders.

I once had a student with autism who would arrive at school crying if any part of his routine had been altered on the bus; it could take him hours to calm down, and his whole day was thrown off from the start. Prioritizing low prices over quality and consistency devalues children, especially vulnerable children without resources, support or advocates. As minor as it may seem, a bus driver or matron can truly provide a sense of safety for a child, something we have spent the last month engaged in national conversation about, in the wake of the Newtown shootings.