New York City's school bus strike enters its third day Friday.
It pits the city's need to rein in spiraling costs against the bus drivers' goal of preserving their jobs.
The city contracts with private bus companies. It says the city must seek competitive bids to save money. But Local 1181 of the Amalgamated Transit Union wants the new contracts to include job protections for current drivers.
Just 152,000 of New York City's 1.1 million public schoolchildren ride yellow school buses. But the cost of busing students has risen from $100 million in 1979 to $1.1 billion now.
Some buses were running Thursday because their drivers are not members of Local 1181. The city Department of Education said 2,320 bus routes out of 7,700 were operating.
Experts said the standoff has the potential to go on for some time.
Union head Michael Cordiello said the drivers will strike until Mayor Bloomberg and the city agree to put a job security clause back into their contract.
"I came to urge the mayor to resolve this strike," Cordiello, president of Local 1181, said on Tuesday. "It is within his power to do so."
But Bloomberg said the strike "is about job guarantees that the union just can't have."
The union sought job protections for current drivers in the new contracts. The city said that the state's highest court, the Court of Appeals, has barred it from including such provisions because of competitive bidding laws; the union said that's not so.
The dispute pits two seemingly irreconcilable imperatives against each other: city budget constraints and union members' desire to keep their jobs. Absent an injunction, the strike could endure for a while, observers on both sides of the issue said.
"It could go on a very long time," said Susan Schurman, dean of Rutgers' School of Management and Labor Relations — herself a bus driver in her youth. "The parties have clearly locked into a classic adversarial battle."
"I don't see the city backing down," said John Hancock, a lawyer with the firm Butzel Long who has represented Michigan school districts in teacher strikes. "It's not so much a labor dispute. It's blackmail."
But Ed Ott, the former head of the New York City Labor Council who is now a distinguished lecturer in labor studies at the Murphy Institute at the City University of New York, said, "From the workers' point of view, the bidding process leaves them no option but to fight for their jobs. ... They kind of have their backs to the wall."
After the union announced a strike Monday, city officials said they would hand out transit passes to students who can get to school on subways and city buses and reimburse parents who must take taxis or drive private cars.
The city doesn't directly hire the bus drivers and matrons, who work for private companies that have city contracts. The workers make an average of about $35,000 a year, with a driver starting at $14 an hour and potentially making as much as $29 an hour over time, according to Cordiello.
The city's last school bus strike, in 1979, lasted 14 weeks. Bloomberg said at his news conference, "I hope this is not going to last a long time but it's not going to last past June."