Beloit drivers vote to strike

Benjamin Ratliffe, a steward with AFSCME Local 60 in Madison, explains why the Beloit bus drivers' contract fight is important for unions all over Wisconsin.

BUS DRIVERS in Beloit, Wis., are ready to strike unless First Student Inc., the private company with a contract with the Beloit School District, meets their demands for a wage increase and a fair contract that the company actually adheres to.

In October, the 38 members of Beloit Bus Drivers Union, AFSCME Local 412, voted by a supermajority to authorize a strike. No strike date has been set yet, and union leaders are hoping the threat of a strike will prove sufficient. Members are receiving a great deal of solidarity from Beloit teachers and are stepping up their community outreach. Earlier this month, the union began receiving financial donations for "mutual aid and assistance" from other area locals.

Contract negotiations have been going on for a year, and as this article was being written, union leaders had just delivered another counterproposal in negotiations. The union has decided to up the ante. In addition to taking the strike vote, Local 412 has filed an Unfair Labor Practices charges with National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

In violation of their current contact with Local 412, the company has "frozen" a salary step increase and outsourced union jobs by refusing to post employment opportunities. Previous NLRB investigations at other First Student Inc. terminals found the company guilty of similar misconduct. The filing will also provide legal protection in the event of retaliation or discrimination on the part of the bosses.

First Student is one of the largest, multinational charter bus companies in the country. Bus drivers in its employ, however, receive no employer-supported health care, pensions, vacation time or even sick leave. Contracted with the school district, First Student is making out like bandits on the public dime.

Union officials want an investigation of more than $800,000 that has gone unaccounted for. Only 30 percent of the money the company receives from the district goes toward workers' pay. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of public funding goes to salaries and benefits for the district's public-sector workers.

The company's contract with the district expires at end of year, and the union is smartly taking advantage of this potential weakness to force First Student, Inc. to shape up or ship out.

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THE FIGHTING spirit in Local 412 needs to take root in locals across the state. AFSCME has lost nearly half its membership since Gov. Scott Walker banned collective bargaining through the passage of his "budget repair bill" in 2011.

Getting members to stick with the union after their contracts have expired has proven difficult, but a few locals have really stood out--particularly those in Rock County, home of two of Wisconsin's most economically hard-hit cities, Beloit and Janesville, where union leaders there have successful re-signed over 90 percent of their members.

When asked in an interview how they've been organizing and keeping their membership up, Janesville District AFSCME Staff Representative Ed Sadlowski cited "a clear methodology of cultivating leadership" and a sense of collective ownership among the members. Workers need to know that "they are the union" and what they get out of being members of a union is largely determined by how willing they are to fight back.

Union members are updated on negotiations through the publication of regular Street Reports, which also share stories from other locals around the state. This not only builds a sense of being part of a broader union family, but also impresses upon union members the importance of being union activists, as many other locals are learning the hard way.

Sharing these stories of hard times and successes is something AFSCME should do more consistently across the state.

According to a recent Street Report, "In a growing demonstration of solidarity and protected concerted activity, the 38 AFSCME members at the Beloit Terminal continue to wear their union colors on the job each day, and have also taken to 'sticker ups,' which proclaim, "UP YOUR OFFER!" and "FAIR CONTRACT NOW!"

Local 412 workers aren't demanding much--a fair contract, a 2 percent wage increase and for First Student, Inc. to live up to their end of their agreements. Regardless, the company has so far stubbornly refused. This goes to show that winning even modest gains from a colossal and highly profitable company like First Student, Inc. is going to take a serious fight. But Local 412 looks like it's up to the challenge.

If their contract isn't renewed--and respected--and the bus drivers hit the picket line, unionists and activists all over Southern Wisconsin need to mobilize to help their brothers and sisters win!