Thursday, January 31, 2013

The NYC School Bus Strike and Wall Street

Despite assurances that ‘sharing the sacrifice,’necessary as a result of the 2008 economic collapse, is the patriotic duty of every American, the latest challenge to that burden- sharing philosophy are the school bus drivers, matrons and mechanics of Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1181, the country’s largest transit union with 8,800 members in New York City.  

On strike since January 16, the walkout was provoked when Mayor Michael Bloomberg withheld a court-ordered Employee Protection Provision(EPP) from Department of Education bids for upcoming school bus contracts. The EPP, which dates back to 1965, guarantees each employee a job regardless of which company wins the bid by requiring the company to hire current workers at their current salary based on seniority. Without the EPP in force, the privately owned bus companies will be able to cut wages and benefits and replace experienced, trained personnel with minimum wage workers who lack the necessary CPR training or other required certifications.  

Like most large urban cities, the city of New York does not directly employ its school bus drivers, matrons or mechanics, the majority of whom work for the Atlantic Express Transit Group which is the City’s largest transit company and second largest in the country. While the majority of the City’s 1.1 million public school students walk to school, 150,000 city students depend on bus service; one-third of whom are disabled requiring a wheelchair or autistic children.  

In the background, beyond public purview is a Wall Street private equity firm, the Greenwich Street Capital Group, that purchased a controlling share of AETG in 1999. As any private equity firm’s prospectus will confirm, its purpose in life is to invest in companies it perceives to be potentially profitable and to take whatever steps are necessary to assure that profitability…no matter if that means cutting services to school age children whose physical disabilities require an attendant on their school bus ride each day. 

Driving a school bus or serving as an on-board caretaker is not exactly a Sunday drive through the park especially in the most densely packed, high-traffic city in the country, frequently driving long distances through multiple boroughs on tight schedules. While the City's school busing costs have risen to $1.1 billion in 2012, up from $300 million in 1994, it is not because of exorbitant bus driver salaries which top out at $50,000 a year or with matrons maxing out at $26,000. Working split shifts in the country’s most expensive place to live, many members of 1181 are on food stamps and as of February 1st, the bus companies have stopped providing the strikers with health benefits 

With the choice of getting arrested on the picket line or lose their job certification, Local 1181’s back is to the wall in a classic labor struggle against a bazillion dollar Wall Street private equity firm and the City of New York which refuses to negotiate. Overwhelmingly minority, members of 1181 are on strike without the support of either political party as the teacher, firefighter, sanitation and transit unions (all working without a contract) remain on the sidelines and a union leadership that has offered to order workers back on the job.  

On Friday afternoon, the NLRB dismissed a Complaint brought by a coalition of bus companies that the walk-out is illegal citing the companies refusal to negotiate on the EPP which, according to the ruling, is an ‘integral part’of employee contracts. The NLRB went on to affirm that the City of New York is a 'primary employer' associated with the strike. The bus coalition has said it will appeal the decision – and until the job security of the EPP is restored, the strike goes on.



Monday, January 28, 2013

Failed Filibuster Reform Threatens Legislative Agenda

Despite Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (Nev) repeated pronouncements that the Republican stranglehold on the Senate’s filibuster could no longer be tolerated, that is exactly the final outcome of recent reform efforts.  With the success of important Obama legislative initiatives like depending on a Democratic Senate for enactment, what was Harry Reid thinking?  Reid’s stunning flip in favor of retaining the most egregious elements of the Republican filibuster clearly jeopardizes the President’s legislative agenda.  

Since the 2010 Congressional election when Senate Democrats lost their 60th vote to Scott Brown of Massachusetts, the minority Republicans played hardball requiring a 60 vote majority to bring any legislation to the Senate floor for a vote.  Even with a clear advantage of 59 – 41 votes, Senate Democrats remained inexplicably unable to assert their legislative resolve as the business of running the government fell into disarray and public support for Congress dropped to historic lows. 

As recently as the day after the 2012 election which kept the Senate majority in Democratic hands (56-44), Reid indicated that the filibuster rules were being abused by Republicans and that he would act to change them.  With that encouragement, reform-minded Senators Tom Udall (NM) and Jeff Merkley (Ore) took up the banner as they had two years ago to require that any Senator who wanted to filibuster a bill must personally appear on the Senate floor to defend their filibuster and to inform the country why their filibuster was needed to stop what they considered to be an ill-conceived act.   The current rules allow any Senator to ‘hold’ a bill without having to be publicly identified or to provide any explanation for that hold.
Yet given public anger at Congressional gridlock and the Senate’s inability to function as Republicans brazenly brought public business to a near-halt, last week Reid formalized a “gentlemen’s agreement” with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky) by stating that he was “not ready to get rid of the 60 vote threshold.” 
What is unfathomable is Reid’s disregard for improving the Senate’s stature or making it an efficient, effective legislative body to assure passage of the President’s most important legislative issues.  Yet to be explained is why the Udall-Merkley proposal could not muster a simple majority of 51 Democratic votes for adoption or why every Democrat in the Senate voted (86-9) to adopt the Reid McConnell watered -down ‘reform.’ Only Senator Bernie Sanders (Vt) and 8 ultra-conservative Republicans were in opposition.  It is with no small irony that the vote to continue the requirement for a Super-Majority of 60 votes was adopted with the requirement of 60 votes.  

Even as Republicans remain mired in a disconnect from political reality and despite reports of a bi-partisan agreement on an immigration reform ‘blueprint’, there is little reason to expect that the party of Lincoln will not continue to effectively stonewall  every reasonable legislative initiative addressing the country’s most critical problems.  And as Senate Democrats continue to stumble into an era of lost principles, there will be no one to blame but themselves.