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Michael Bloomberg: How to Break a Union

Issue Bloomberg Files

Steven Wishnia Mar 2

One of the most telling episodes of Michael Bloomberg’s 12 years as mayor is one of the least known: In February 2013, he broke a strike by 8,000 school-bus workers and crowed that he’d crushed “the special interests.”

The strike involved drivers, attendants and mechanics at the private bus companies the city hires to provide transportation for field trips and for the mostly disabled pupils who can’t walk or take a bus or subway to school. Since the late 1970s, their contracts with the city had included “employee protection provisions,” that mandated that if it replaced a bus company, the new one had to hire the old company’s workers in order of seniority and at the same wages and benefits.

In January 2013, Bloomberg announced that he would not include those provisions in upcoming bus contracts, saying they cost too much and impaired competition. He refused to negotiate with the workers’ union, Amalgamated Transit Union 1181. They went on strike.

Drivers then started at $14 an hour and reached $29.63 after six years on the job. Attendants started at $11 and maxed out at $15.93. They did 10-hour shifts, with overtime pay after 10½ hours. “Bloomberg wants us to work like part-time workers, with no benefits,” driver Juana Cruz said on a picket line on a below-freezing morning near City Hall.

Bloomberg vetoed a 2012 bill that would have set a “living wage” of at least $11.50 an hour on projects that received more than $1 million in public funds.

After a month of surviving on $90 a week strike pay with no hope of budging him, the union called off the strike, hoping that the next mayor would be more sympathetic.

“In the city’s entire history, the special interests have never had less power than they do today,” Bloomberg responded. “The end of this strike reflects the fact that when we say we put children first, we mean it.”

He was talking about people who got up at 5 in the morning and gave their cell-phone numbers to autistic kids’ parents. Their “special interest” was wanting to keep their jobs and make $14 an hour instead of $8.

Local 1181 President Michael Cordiello told WBAI radio four months later that as a result, “2,000 of my members have lost their jobs, because the work went to low-bidding companies.” He told a state budget hearing in 2017 that the low-bidding companies paid “barely above the minimum wage, minimal or no health-care coverage, and no pensions.”

By then, with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration handling bus contracts, about three-fourths of city school-bus workers had employee-protection provisions, but about 2,000 didn’t. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has twice vetoed legislation that would require the protections, once in 2016 and once in 2019. “The inclusion of these provisions is both anti-competitive as well as cost-inflating,” Cuomo wrote in his veto memo last December.

Bloomberg’s contempt for organized labor was not confined to bus workers. After demanding a wage freeze in 2009, he effectively imposed one by refusing to negotiate contracts for the next four years with any of the roughly 150 unions representing city workers, from accountants to zookeepers. He announced in 2013 that he wanted to reach deals, but only if they didn’t include retroactive pay and forced workers to pay more for health care—and, in a characteristically nanny-state twist, to switch to health plans that encouraged them to quit smoking and lose weight. That December, he said the expired contracts gave mayor-elect de Blasio the power “to negotiate historic reforms,” such as cutting pension and health benefits.

The de Blasio administration had to negotiate contracts retroactive to 2010 — and to 2008, for teachers and transit workers. It took almost three years to complete those deals.

Bloomberg also vetoed a 2012 bill that would have set a “living wage” of at least $11.50 an hour on projects that received more than $1 million in public funds, and a year later, one that would require employers with at least 15 workers to give them up to five paid sick-leave days per year.

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