Strike Appears Imminent at First Student as Negotiations Break Down

Unfair Labor Practices at Seattle School District Bus Contractor Threaten to Send up to 400 School Bus Drivers to the Street

October 12, 2017

Negotiations between Teamsters Local 174 and Seattle School District bus contractor First Student broke down yesterday. The negotiations over healthcare and retirement – which affect over 400 school bus drivers in Seattle – began in June, but First Student has continued to refuse to bargain in good faith. First Student has refused to provide requested information, and has failed to send a representative with the authority to make decisions. These, along with the refusal to bargain in good faith, are all Unfair Labor Practices under the National Labor Relations Act.

The group of First Student drivers, who have been members of Teamsters Local 174 since 2013, ratified a contract last year that guaranteed their wages and language to protect their rights on the job. However, retirement and healthcare issues were not settled at that time – instead, both sides agreed to reopen these issues in 2017.  A commitment to ask the Seattle School District for sufficient funding to provide medical and retirement was made, but First Student did not do their part and the Seattle School District refused to step up to the plate.

Since reopening the contract for healthcare and retirement, negotiations have gone nowhere. “The medical plan that the drivers have been offered up to this point provided decent coverage, but it was not even remotely affordable to them. Out of over 400 drivers, only 26 even signed up for the plan,” said Local 174 Director of Negotiations Patty Warren. “The plan options the Company brought to the table this time around were even worse: fixed benefit plans that would allow our members to go to the doctor and find out they were sick, but then be unable to afford to do anything about it. These plans would have left people on the hook for countless thousands of dollars in bills for even a brief hospital stay. We couldn’t possibly agree to that. Our members deserve better.”

The main obstacle preventing a contract from being reached appears to be the privatized school bus business model itself. In areas where school bus drivers are employed directly by the School District, they are compensated appropriately as public employees often are, with good healthcare and retirement security. However, the Seattle School District has outsourced its school bus services to First Student in an attempt to save money, and the impact on bus drivers has been dire: “Many of the drivers are so strapped for cash that they have to use Public Assistance to get healthcare for their families,” said Local 174 Senior Business Agent Abraham Taylor. “And they can forget about retirement – most haven’t been able to save much of anything at all.”

Drivers express regret that the negotiations have not been able to produce an agreement that will keep them at work. “We feel like we were forced into this,” said First Student employee and Bargaining Committee member Joyce Hiatt. “We don’t want to go on strike, but we are not going to stand by and be mistreated. We see all the other employees at the school getting paid fairly – the custodians, the cafeteria employees, and everyone else. We’re the only ones out here with no affordable healthcare and no pension. And that isn’t right.”

“We would like to be healthy, so that we can continue to do a good job,” said another First Student employee and Bargaining Committee member Renita Wright. “It’s a shame that First Student and the Seattle School District can’t seem to be able to make that happen for us.”

Local 174 Secretary-Treasurer Rick Hicks echoed the bus drivers’ message: “This isn’t just a shame – it is an embarrassment. The Seattle School District and First Student need to step up and put forward a real offer that takes our members’ needs into account. It is embarrassing that there are people working in our school system who need government aid for healthcare and have no hope of retirement, especially when just about everyone else in that same work environment does.”

“Nobody wants to see a strike in this industry. But First Student, through their stall tactics and total refusal to put forward a reasonable offer at the bargaining table, are forcing our hand,” Hicks continued. “We are going to do what is right for our members and their families.”

Currently, the bus drivers are not on strike; however, a strike could be called at any time after the drivers voted overwhelmingly in favor of a strike action at a meeting on September 24.

Founded in 1909, Teamsters Local 174 represents 7,200 working men and women in the Seattle area. “Like” us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TeamstersLocal174.