NEW YORK — A standoff between striking school bus drivers and aides looking for job protections and a city administration that says they just can't have it has the potential to go on for some time, observers said, as parents scrambled for a second day to figure out alternatives for tens of thousands of students who need to get to school.
Union head Michael Cordiello said the drivers will strike until Mayor Michael 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 of the Amalgamated Transit Union, 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 city has put its contracts with private bus companies up for bid, aiming to cut costs. Local 1181 says drivers could suddenly lose their jobs when contracts expire in June.
Bloomberg has said the city must seek competitive bids to save money.
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 last a long time, 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 said that on Wednesday, 113,200 students out of 152,000 who take a school bus weren't able to do so. The rest had bus routes that were running.
Peter Curry's 7-year-old daughter, Maisy, is in a wheelchair and is usually picked up by a bus with a mechanical lift. On Wednesday, he drove her from lower Manhattan to her school in the Chelsea neighborhood.
"It means transferring her to the car, breaking down the wheelchair, getting here, setting up the wheelchair, transferring her from the car, when normally she would just wheel right into the school bus," Curry said. "She's on oxygen. There's a lot of equipment that has to be moved and transferred also."
On Staten Island, Tangaline Whiten was more than 45 minutes late delivering her second-grade son to Staten Island Community Charter School, after first dropping off her daughter at Public School 60 about six miles away.
She said the distance and the extra traffic on the road made the prospect of a long strike upsetting, because it means her son would be consistently late. If the strike lasts, she said she'll consider carpooling.
"Most of the parents where I'm at are working parents, so they're finding it difficult to transport their kids, and especially to pick them up," Whiten said. "I'm just fortunate that I'm a stay-at-home mom."
Wednesday's walkout was by the largest bus drivers' union; some bus routes served by other unions were operating. The city Department of Education said approximately 3,000 bus routes out of a total of 7,700 were running. More than 8,000 drivers and aides were on strike.
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. They also include students who attend specialized school programs outside of their neighborhoods.
Seeking a speedy end to the strike, a consortium of 20 bus companies filed two complaints with the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday accusing the union of waging an unlawful secondary strike and of not bargaining in good faith.
"We are asking the NLRB for an immediate ruling," said Carolyn Daly, a spokeswoman for the bus companies.
James Paulsen, director of the NLRB's Brooklyn office, said the board is reviewing the complaints.
He said that if the NLRB finds that the union is pursuing an unlawful secondary strike, it will seek a federal injunction to halt the labor action.
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."
Associated Press writers Eileen AJ Connelly and Verena Dobnik contributed to this report.