Around 2,800 students across the Kenai Peninsula begin and end every school day with a ritual that plays out all school year long — waiting for a big yellow bus to pick them up and take them home.
If negotiations between First Student, the bus company that contracts with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to transport students, and the union representing the 120 drivers on the peninsula don’t make headway soon, that ritual may be abruptly interrupted. Drivers voted 88 to 5 on Dec. 1 to authorize a strike.
The threat is an attempt to force First Student to reconsider its position in contract talks. First Student workers voted last February to join the Teamsters Union 959, based in Anchorage, and have been in contract talks with First Student since March. First Student, which bought out Laidlaw and took over its transportation contract last year, made what it called its “last, best offer” in late October, which was rejected by workers. Talks were at a standstill until the strike vote.
On Monday, Rick Traini, executive director for Teamsters 959, said he’d reached out to the First Student labor manager, who told him they could meet again in mid-January.
“I tried to relay to him that that’s more than a month away,” he said. “We can’t continue to let employees sit out there and not come up with a contract. They want to see meaningful progress between now and then. I don’t think waiting another month is good for the situation.”
Now that a strike is authorized, it could happen at any time. The school district has said it hopes to receive advance warning, so it can pass that warning on to parents, many of whom will need to make other arrangements to get their kids to and from school. But giving parents — and First Student — time to prepare for a strike takes some of the sting out of it, so there’s no guarantee drivers will want to devalue their bargaining chip.
The result could be a logistical mess for the school district in dealing with schedules and absences, for First Student in trying to transport as many kids as it can, for parents rearranging schedules to get kids to and from school, and for kids themselves, who may end up waiting — and waiting, and waiting — in the cold.
That’s not something drivers want to see happen, but they are prepared to take that step, said Michael Morris, a central peninsula school bus driver.
“It’s going to be hardship, yes, but you have to prove your point and have to stand behind what you believe. It’s going to be hard for people, yeah, but that seems to be the only thing this company understands,” Morris said.
First Student did not return calls to its Soldotna and Anchorage offices seeking comment for this story.
Drivers say there are several issues they want resolved with First Student. Jamie Brewer, a First Student driver who lives in Soldotna, attended the Dec. 1 school board meeting to announce the strike vote and explain why drivers unionized in the first place.
“Some of our main issues were fair treatment, respect, equal pay and safe buses. We organized because we felt that together we could positively change things, the way they worked with the contractor you chose, because we care deeply about the kids we transport and because we consider our jobs to be very important to making the District run as smoothly as it does,” she said.
Brewer said the union has filed unfair labor practices against First Student for refusing to provide information, making changes without drivers’ input and not coming back to the negotiating table.
“Our negotiations for decent benefits, wages and working conditions should not be this difficult,” Brewer said. “… As school bus drivers, we pride ourselves on our jobs as highly trained professional drivers who carry the most precious cargo in the world. This company should treat us fairly.”
Traini said wages, health insurance, safety concerns, fair treatment and days off are the main sticking points in contract talks. He said school bus drivers are trained, professional drivers, yet are the lowest-paid of positions requiring a certified drivers license.
“They’re hoping for a meaningful increase, and something that helps them keep up with the cost of living down on the peninsula,” Traini said. “Obviously, they’re looking for a livable wage.”
Morris said first-year drivers get paid $14.30 per hour by First Student.
“I just think it’s kind of ridiculous we get paid less than a lot of line drivers and things like that,” Morris said. “You know, with the way we have to work, you almost have to be a psychologist to drive these buses. It sounds funny, but to take care of that many kids — 50 kids sitting behind you, that’s pretty tough. Teachers wouldn’t have to deal with that many kids sitting behind them.”
For health insurance, Traini said less than one-fifth of First Student workers use the company’s plan.
“The cost is so prohibitive that a general employee can’t participate,” he said.
A related issue is a lack of paid sick days. Traini said workers get five paid holidays off during the school year. Beyond that, if they don’t work, they don’t get paid.
“If you get sick in October, you’re at home without pay and without health care,” Traini said. “I don’t think parents would appreciate bus drivers coming to work sick and driving a bus because they can’t afford to stay home sick.”
Safety and bus maintenance issues have come up that drivers don’t think have been addressed adequately, Traini said, including heaters on buses, the lack of studded tires and radios that don’t work properly. Beyond the specifics, though, workers would like a better process in place for addressing safety concerns with First Student management, such as a safety committee, Traini said.
Fair treatment is the other main issue. Traini said workers want equity in wages, schedules, benefits and other matters, so all drivers are subject to the same rules and treatment, instead of some getting special deals. Traini said that addressing those issues would lead to less turnover, which he estimated at 25 percent.
“The turnover rate is a big thing to us. Obviously, we’re looking for a fair enough contract that there isn’t a lot of turnover,” he said. “… They want to be treated the same. I think that’s why they asked us to represent them.”
Morris said the unionizing has helped drivers stand up for changes.
“Now that we’ve got the union started, anyway, at least you’ve got somebody backing you that will go with you,” he said. “Before, three people talking, that’s just ridiculous.”
Not all drivers are on board with the union, however, or the decision to strike.
Danny Shannon and Chris Williamson, drivers in Homer, say they’ll still drive, even if a strike is called.
“I will be showing up and driving. I’ll show up to work and do my best. If I have to double up routes to get the job done, I’ll do my best.” Shannon said. “Several of our drivers (in the Homer area) will be showing up and driving, because we signed on to do a j
ob to drive a bus. The company keeps their part of the bargain — they pay us well, the insurance benefits are good — there really isn’t anything more we can expect from them.”
Shannon said he’s researched driver wages and talked to insurance agents, and concluded First Student isn’t giving drivers a raw deal, considering the amount of hours they work. He comes from a religious background that opposes unions, and doesn’t like being forced into that system.
“I think a group of employees have the right to say, ‘Look, we’re not being treated fairly, we’re going to quit,’” he said. “What I have problem with is when it gets to bullying and extortion tactics and threatening people if you dare cross the picket line we’re going to do something, and using children as pawns to twist the arms of the company to get more money is absolutely deplorable. If (First Student) is treating them so badly, how many people would still be working there? They’d go work for somebody with more money.”
Williamson said he worries that being forced to pay union dues would make any pay increase moot.
“The reality is unless I get like a four dollar an hour increase, the union dues I have to pay are going to give me a pay cut,” he said. “That would make me upset because I didn’t agree to get less than what I’m making.”
Shannon and Williamson say they’ve heard the complaints drivers have about not being paid for a full day’s work, even through the on-again, off-again driving schedule makes it difficult to hold another job during the day, and that different driving jobs — a regular school route vs. an activity bus, for instance — pay different amounts. But drivers know that going in, they said.
“You’re accepting what the company is offering,” Williamson said. “We’ve taken this bizarro selfish stance, and companies are running a business. They’re trying to make a profit and that’s just the reality of life. If I were running a business, I’d do things to generate a profit. As an employee, I am choosing to accept those things. If I am unhappy, I’d go find another job.”
As for maintenance and safety issues, Shannon said that, in Homer, at least, he had no complaints.
“In Alaska, winters are hash and roads are harsh so the buses do break, but they do fix them when they break,” he said.
He pointed out that the Homer bus barn has won the state’s Best-Maintained Midsize Bus Fleet Award, most recently in 2007. At the time, the inspector was quoted in a Homer newspaper as saying the Kenai Peninsula overall “did very, very well.”
Shannon said he recognizes other people’s right to unionize if they so choose, and doesn’t think his fellow drivers are bad people or are intentionally trying to hurt children. But he does hope the union doesn’t get its way.
“I hope First Student has enough integrity not to cave in to their demands. Like with any extortion, once you give in you’re going to have to give in again and again and again. They’re never going to stop. They try to spread the image in the community that all the drivers are united against the company and things like that. But you hear very few people in the community who support this. I don’t hear, ‘I hope you all go on strike and strand the children.’”
Morris, on the other hand, said he does hear community support for drivers and a strike, if it comes to that.
“I hate to see it myself, I mean about the kids. I really enjoy the kids, the ones that I have. You know, you get them trained and they’re basically all good kids. … I really got a lot of support from families. I picked their kids up and talked to them and not one said anything against this. Everybody’s for us, that I’ve talked to. The only negative I’ve heard is from our own company.”
As for other drivers who don’t support the union, Morris said he suspects that sentiment will change.
“As soon as if we do get more pay or anything, it’s really funny how quick they shut up. People will scream and holler and as soon as the pay changes you don’t see them saying, ‘Well, I don’t want that money, or don’t want that help from the union,” he said.
Don’t be too sure, Shannon said. He’s committing to driving through a strike, no matter what the consequences.
“John the Baptist was beheaded for doing the right thing,” he said. “I figure the least I can do is do the right thing, and take the consequences as they come. I hope I won’t be beheaded, though. I would prefer to not be beheaded.”
Traini said, as with any union strike, people would be free to go along with it or not, if one does occur.
He’s hopeful the community will show support for drivers in negotiations with First Student, and when it comes time to renegotiate the contract with the school district.
“I hope people reach out and contact their school district and assemblymen and ask them to support a fair contract for the people that work with them, live with them, go to church with them and shop in the same grocery stores,” Traini said.