The national campaign to organize school bus drivers by the Teamsters has been a slow but steady success according to a Bruce Vail article in In These Times.
Recently, two small victories in Northern California hoisted the total number of successful Teamsters bus driver elections above 300 in the past six years. 32,000 workers have been organized in that time period. Impressive numbers to be sure, but far from the end game for the Teamsters who hope to organize a majority of the 68,000 workers employed by First Student, “America’s leading school bus transportation operator.”
With other bus companies beginning to show interest in unionization, bus drivers throughout the U.S. are coming around to the idea of organizing.
For the Teamsters, that support network has been built up carefully over the years with an initial focus on First Student, a Cincinnati-based company with operations in 42 U.S. states and eight Canadian provinces. First Student is said to be largest private operator of school buses in North America, with direct control over 60,000 vehicles and a growing army of employees. First Student, in turn, is owned by the British transport conglomerate First Group.
The company has grown rapidly in the U.S. as local school systems shed their own bus fleets and turn to private contractors to provide transportation for the kids. Much of the cost savings from these moves comes from eliminating the schools’ bus fleet employees, who in the past had often been able to secure decent wages and benefits.
For some drivers, such as Omaha’s Joni Cleveland, working side jobs to make ends meet is what inspired organizing.
Joni Cleveland is a bus driver in Omaha, Neb., with a close-up view of this development. An employee of a number of different bus operators for 20 years, she saw the company she worked for purchased by First Student. Soon after, worker discontent with the low wages, paltry benefits and difficult working conditions spurred talk among the drivers of forming a union.
“I wasn’t too open to joining a union in the beginning,” she told In These Times. “People told me that a union was just another business, and I didn’t need another boss,” Cleveland said.
But her experience in a second job as a manager at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant changed her outlook. “When you work as manager at KFC you have a contract with the company. That’s just fair to the employee. Everybody should have the same chance to have a contract” with the employer, she said.
The second job at KFC was necessary, according to Cleveland, because it was impossible to live on the pay provided by First Student. The basic starting wage was $13.52 an hour when the Teamster organizing campaign began in 2008, he said, and there were no paid benefits at all. “They had a healthcare plan, but you have to pay about $300 a month for a family plan. Nobody can afford that on the kind the pay you earn driving a bus for them,” she said.
Part of the success of the Teamsters organizing campaign, according to deputy organizing director of the union, Kim Keller, has been First Student’s corporate policy against union-busting.
Key to the rapid progress, according to Keller, is a corporate labor policy at First Student on “Freedom of Association.” That policy maintains that the company will respect the right of workers to form unions and not actively suppress organizing campaigns, as is common elsewhere in American business. The policy was adopted in 2007, Keller reports, following sustained lobbying and pressure by the Teamster leaders in partnership with the British union UNITE, which represents U.K. road and rail workers employed by First Student’s parent company. Since 2007, the two unions have worked steadily to broaden the corporate labor policy, and establish monitoring and safeguard procedures so that unions have a level playing field for organizing.
Read Vail’s entire piece HERE.