By Verena Dobnik
Thousands of striking school bus drivers and their supporters staged a protest Sunday, calling New York's mayor "heartless" a day before the city opens competitive bidding for new contracts.
Members of Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union rallied in Cadman Plaza Park and marched across Brooklyn Bridge to City Hall, demanding job security.
"We're not asking for one benefit, or 10 cents," said John Scotto, a Staten Island driver. "It's simply for the right to come back to work in September."
The striking drivers walked off their jobs Jan. 16. The city says it's not required to guarantee jobs.
Instead, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott have said that the city has to pick the most competitive bus companies to cut the costs of busing about 150,000 students to school, which have risen from $100 million in 1979 to $1.1 billion today.
Protesters filled a Broadway sidewalk behind police barricades.
Among them was Noah Gotbaum, a Manhattan widower raising three children — a 13-year-old girl, an 11-year-old boy and an 8-year-old boy with special needs who was being bused to public school. The other two take public transportation.
The city is "trying to cut costs," said Gotbaum. "And the workers are saying, 'If you want to squeeze the profits of the bus companies, that's fine. But stop trying to lower the bids on the backs of the workers.'"
Guaranteeing job security means attracting and keeping workers with more experience, Gotbaum said.
"I need and count on these folks every single day," he said. "They're as important to me as the teachers."
Scotto, a father of four, said the families of the more than 8,000 striking drivers, matrons and mechanics also "are truly suffering now."
He said 60 percent of them are women, and more than 80 percent minorities, making an average salary of $35,000.
The union is demanding that drivers continue to get the job protections they've had for decades.
The city says the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has barred city officials from including such provisions because of competitive bidding laws; the union said that's not so.
More than 100,000 students have had to find other ways to get to school.
"The mayor forced this, he orchestrated it," Scotto said. "He's heartless and ruthless."
Most of the city's roughly 1.1 million public school students take public transportation or walk to school. Those who rely on the buses include 54,000 special education students and others who live far from schools or transportation.
The city doesn't directly hire the drivers and matrons helping kids on and off buses; they work for the private companies.
Any company is free to submit a proposal to the city on Monday.
Local 1181 officials say members could suddenly lose their jobs when contracts expire in June.