Drivers for the Oceanside-based Baumann Bus Company went on strike Monday morning, which meant that thousands of students in the Rockville Centre, Baldwin, Freeport and Hicksville school districts had to get themselves to school.
A line of cars crawled forward on Shepherd Street to start the week, as parents dropped off their students at South Side High School. “We usually take the bus,” said student Kiersten Quirk, who walked up Princeton Road toward the school with two classmates. “It’s very inconvenient that my mom has to drive us, and my little brother has to get a ride to [South Side Middle School] now too.”
“Obviously it’s a lot more crowded,” added Vito Milano, another student’s father. “And more traffic going to school.”
Other parents commented that they were late for work or an appointment as they let their children out and drove off.
The drivers’ union, Transportation Workers Local 252, had been in heated talks over the past week, with no resolution. Union officials said Monday that the union and company were far apart in their negotiations. A federal mediation session was set for Nov. 10. Drivers were seen outside the Baumann Bus Company on Lawson Boulevard, protesting with an oversized inflatable rat out front.
“They’re losing pay fighting to get a better contract,” Debra Hagan, president of TW Local 252, said of the bus drivers and assistants at the rally on Monday morning. “We recognize that it’s an inconvenience, that parents need to get their children to school so that they can get to work and provide a living for their family. But we need to get this settled. It can’t keep dragging out where our members are in limbo without a contract and the benefits that they need.”
Though Rockville Centre’s public schools were off on Tuesday for Election Day, Schools Superintendent Dr. William Johnson said the district worked to find bussing for the roughly 450 parochial school students in the district. The Baumann Bus Company committed to transport students to Chaminade, Kellenberg and Sacred Heart on Tuesday, according to a statement posted Monday night on the Rockville Centre School District’s website, and the district secured Guardian Bus Company to transport St. Agnes students.
A negotiation session between Baumann and the union was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. The district posted on its website on Tuesday night that Guardian Bus Company would provide transportation to and from school for Rockville Centre elementary schools; in the morning for South Side Middle School students on Bus Route No. 1; for South Side High School students on bus routes No. 9 and 10; and for all high school students in the afternoon. Baumann buses were once again set to cover transportation for Chaminade, Kellenberg and Sacred Heart students on Wednesday, and for St. Agnes in the morning. “Please be patient,” the website stated Tuesday night, “as there are new and substitute drivers on most of the bus routes, and there may be some delays.”
Bus drivers and matrons on Monday called for “guaranteed weeks” — to ensure consistent five-day paychecks — to be included in the contract, which Hagan said other bus companies offer their workers.
“We carry the most precious cargo — children,” Blaine Witherspoon, a driver for Hicksville students, told the Herald. “We love our children, and we’re not asking for nothing crazy. We just want to see a contract like everybody else has.”
William Eason, who has been transporting students in Hicksville for three years, explained the challenges of the job, such as driving children with special needs, which he said deserves a fair wage. “We are psychologists, health care workers, drivers,” he said. “We are attendants, we’re dads, we’re moms. All these things encompass us and what we do. We are a jack of all trades.”
Johnson said in addition to the 450 parochial school students, about 1,300 students are transported within the district. Most parents found a way for their children to get to school on Monday, he added, noting that though only about 1 percent of students were absent, some were certainly impacted.
Though he understood the union’s push for contracts, Johnson called its tactics “flat out dead wrong,” adding that the drivers are asserting themselves in a harmful way.
“The kids who really need transportation are the ones who are the most adversely affected by this, so it’s just not fair,” he said. “I don’t have a great deal of respect for this union at this point. This is not a message only to the company. They’re hurting kids, and they’re doing it intentionally and unnecessarily.”