Video: Bus Strike Reveals 'Free Market' Fakery

Last week I was on Fox News to talk about the conflict between New York City and its school bus drivers and aides.

Eight thousand workers took to the picket lines because Mayor Bloomberg and his appointed Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott are abandoning long-standing contract requirements for school bus operators, known as Employee Protection Provisions (EPP). These establish industry-wide seniority, wage, and training standards.

The Bloomberg administration is hiding behind a 2011 court decision that banned similar requirements for bus companies that service early-childhood education programs, citing their “anticompetitive and cost-inflating effects.” Mayor Bloomberg, the billionaire IT and media mogul, is trumpeting unfettered competition as the only way to save the city money.

But his own legal and economic arguments tie him in more twisted knots than a pretzel.

First, like every great flip-flopper, Bloomberg was for the EPP before he was against it. The Bloomberg administration defended the contract requirements in court, arguing—correctly—that eliminating them would lead to labor unrest and service disruptions that could cost the city far more in the long run.

Second, Bloomberg's claim that his hands are legally tied rings hollow. This is the same politician who strong-armed the city council into rewriting term limits, allowing him a third run for mayor. He is also on the cover of Time magazine for his efforts to redraw the lines around the Second Amendment. When it suits him, he makes things happen.

And don't even try to claim that Bloomberg is standing strong against “big government” or a “nanny state” that’s pushing its values on hapless citizens. Bloomberg is first in line to use city policy to promote his values, whether it’s banning the “Big Gulp” and other super-sized sodas, in an effort to cut down on obesity, or pushing for hybrid taxis and a tax on trucks coming in and out of Manhattan, to reduce congestion and air pollution.

If decent wages for school bus drivers were in line with Bloomberg’s ideology, he’d find a way.

Fuzzy Math

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Bloomberg's math doesn't make the case for his free market philosophy either. He touts the fact that in 1979—the year the EPP was instituted—the Department of Education was spending $100 million on bus services. According to the DOE, the city is spending $1.1 billion now.

But that year almost all the city's school bus routes were run by one company, Varsity, operating with the same seniority and wage protections that are currently in place. Forcing competition for routes hasn't driven costs down; it’s led to the opposite.

Ironically, as an in-depth article in the New York Times detailed, one of the major factors pushing up busing costs is Bloomberg's devotion to the free market in education. Giving parents more choices in where they send their children to school has created a patchwork of circuitous bus routes and sparsely filled buses.

As the Times article also points out, the rise in costs has tracked, almost one-for-one, the rising costs associated with transporting special education students, who comprise more than a third of the 150,000 children who ride the bus to and from school.

It’s no surprise that the billionaire mayor of the richest city in the richest country in the history of humankind is not suggesting we raise taxes on people living in his zip code so we can transport special-needs kids to public schools, and so the people who do the work can maintain a decent living.

And Bloomberg, free market fundamentalist that he is, doesn't even entertain the idea that school bus drivers and matrons should be public employees, earning the same benefits and wages as other folks who perform vital public services.

But Bloomberg will never cop to these plain truths. As long as Fox News will let me, I'll keep spreading them across the airwaves.

Mark Brenner is the former director of Labor Notes.