BOSTON -- A surprise strike by Boston school bus drivers stranded thousands of students Tuesday, forcing some to hitch rides with cops, harried parents and even a police superintendent, while others just stayed home.
Most of the city district's 700 bus drivers suddenly went idle amid a dispute with the contractor that employs them, stranding some 33,000 students, according to district officials.
Striking drivers say they're frustrated by the way the contractor is treating them, including changes in their health care plan, failing to provide key route information and not effectively communicating with them.
Schools spokesman Lee McGuire said the union also opposes a GPS system that allows parents to track buses online in real time.
It was not clear when the drivers would return to work. A federal judge turned down an injunction request from Veolia Transportation Inc. that would have forced the drivers back behind the wheel.
Veolia sought an injunction against the drivers' union, arguing the drivers have "harmed the public welfare" by taking away the only ride some children have to school. But an attorney for the United Steelworkers Local 8751 argued that "rogue" employees initiated Tuesday's walkout, not the union.
Attorney Patrick Bryant said the union has asked the drivers to return to work, in some cases by way of megaphones directed at bus yard picketers.
Veolia's attorneys argued it strains credibility to believe that the union isn't behind a near-universal work stoppage involving hundreds of members. But U.S. District Judge George O'Toole sided with the union, saying an injunction wasn't appropriate now, at least until it's clear whether drivers would return to work Wednesday.
After the hearing, Bryant said it was unclear if workers would be back.
"We've asked the people to go back to work, so how can we predict?" he said.
An outraged Mayor Tom Menino called the bus drivers "angry people who don't like to follow the rules." He said schools would open an hour early Wednesday so parents juggling their own jobs can drop children off early.
The city's public transit system will continue to offer free bus and subway rides for students, while police work with the school department to ensure student safety, Menino said.
On Tuesday morning, the city scrambled to find ways to get kids to classes, with police shuttling some to school in cruisers and vans. Police Supt. Daniel Linskey tweeted a picture of two children he took to school, saying one was happy because he didn't want to miss gym class.
The strike was particularly disrupting for Michelle Novelle, a mother of nine. Six attend public school, including two autistic children who are normally picked up by school buses right at the family's Roslindale home.
"I think it's inexcusable not to at least give us the courtesy of a heads up, for those of who have kids with special needs who need routine and predictably," Novelle said. She said she learned of the walkout through an automated call from the city shortly after 6 a.m. Tuesday.
Novelle's oldest child took public transit to her high school and she drove the other five to the three different schools they attend.
"It was nearly impossible to get kids to where they had to go this morning," she said.