First give bus drivers health care

December 12, 2017

Darrin Hoop reports on the issues that forced Seattle bus drivers to go on a one-day unfair labor practices strike, in an article first published in Educators' Vision, a newsletter put out by Social Equity Educators, a social justice caucus of the Seattle Education Association.

MORE THAN 400 Seattle Public School (SPS) bus drivers, members of Teamsters Local 174, struck for one day on November 29 against the First Student bus company. The workers picketed at the company's two locations: one in the South Park neighborhood and the other in the Lake City Way neighborhood.

According to the Teamsters Local 174 website, "The Unfair Labor Practice strike will protest First Student's unilateral change and implementation of an inferior medical plan for its employees--an illegal action under the National Labor Relations Act, as health care is the subject of negotiations and cannot be changed without bargaining with the employees' union."

As part of a contract the two sides finalized last year, they agreed to delay a discussion of health care and retirement benefits for one year. They began new negotiations back in July.

A union spokesperson highlighted that only 26 of the 400 plus drivers can afford health care and none of the drivers have an adequate retirement plan.

The Seattle Times reports that entry-level drivers earn $18 an hour and that drivers who work less than 30 hours a week don't receive any health care benefits.

Striking school bus drivers walk the picket line in Seattle, Washington
Striking school bus drivers walk the picket line in Seattle, Washington (Teamsters Local 174 | Facebook)

At least 12,000 students in Seattle Public Schools out of the 50,000 plus were affected by the strike.

Before the strike, in a letter to the company Pegi McEvoy, assistant superintendent for operations at SPS, argued: "Should daily bus service be disrupted, the lives and education of many students will be significantly and adversely impacted. In addition to this disruption, Seattle Public Schools could also face substantial costs to address your failure to provide the contractually obligated service."

SPS threatened to seek damages of $1.2 million per day of the strike from First Student. The district and the company are in year one of a three-year contract worth $27 million a year.

WHILE THE district's words seem harsh, we feel it's important to not let the district off the hook in this struggle. According to the Seattle Times:

Last year, Seattle School Board members emphasized the importance of retaining drivers when they approved the First Student contract, worth at least $27 million a year. They requested data to see how much it would cost for the district to offer health-care benefits to drivers who work 20-29 hours per week. The district decided against providing those benefits, which would have cost $1.7 million annually.

Like any good student, let's do the math. The district agreed to pay First Student over $81 million over the next three years, but it couldn't afford the extra $5.1 million during that time for the health care benefits our fellow union members more than deserve.

The other option would be for First Student to take that extra $5.1 million out of its profit. The company still would have been left with $76 million for the next three years. This money is a drop in the bucket for First Student.

Its parent company is FirstGroup plc. It has operations in Britain, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Panama, the U.S. and India. It employs over 110,000 workers who transport over 2.2 billion passengers annually. According to its website, it runs five different divisions:

First Student: "The largest provider of student transportation in North America--more than twice the size of the next largest competitor."

First Transit: "One of the largest private sector providers of public transit management and contracting in North America."

Greyhound: "The only national operator of scheduled intercity coach transportation services in the U.S. and Canada."

First Bus: "One of the largest bus operators in the UK, with a fifth of the market outside London."

First Rail: "One of the UK's most experienced rail operators, carrying around 140 million passengers across our two franchises and our open access operation."

The adjusted revenue in 2016 for all five divisions combined exceeded $6.7 billion. The money is clearly there to provide proper health care and retirement benefits for these Teamsters.

Social Equity Educators stands in solidarity with the school bus drivers and calls on both SPS and First Student to immediately meet their demands!

We encourage all our fellow union members in the Seattle Education Association, the other unionized workers in Seattle Public Schools and workers throughout the city to stand shoulder to shoulder with them as well.

Especially in the new era of Trump in the White House, it's imperative that the entire labor movement, whether union or non-union, live by the old Industrial Workers of the World slogan that "an injury to one is an injury to all."

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