Bus driver talks stalled: Teamsters, First Student hopeful for positive results

Posted: Thursday, December 18, 2008

Negotiations between local union bus drivers and their employer First Student have "stalled out," according to Rick Traini, executive director of Teamsters Union 959, based in Anchorage.

First Student is the company contracted by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District to shuttle students to and from class each day.

For just less than a year, the Teamsters, who represent 120 local bus drivers and attendants, and First Student have been in negotiations over a contract.

Union members voted 88-5 to reject the most recent contract proposal and authorize a strike on Dec 1.

Traini said the Teamsters have continued to work with First Student. He reported that a meeting had been set up tentatively for Jan. 13, but the date fell through.

"We're kind of stalled out and waiting for a call from them," he said.

Officials at First Student say they're eager to meet, according to Nicole Jones, spokesperson for First Student in Cincinnati, Ohio.

"We always go into negations with the hope of finding a fair and equitable agreement," Jones said. "It doesn't always work out that way but in the large the majority of cases it does."

Both Traini and Jones were hesitant to speak to the specifics of the negotiations.

Traini did say that the main issues he would like to see addressed are benefits, wages and safety.

"Drivers are lacking any kinds of means to resolve any issues they have," Traini said.

He cited a lack of clarity in company policy and rules, saying that employee handbooks are often out of date or unobtainable.

He also said that the health care option offered by First Student was too expensive for most drivers.

"Only 20 of 120 (local Teamsters) can afford it, those are some pretty damning numbers," he said.

Jones however, called the health benefits offered by First Student, "very competitive."

Traini said he would like to see a benefits package that can be afforded by any who wish to pursue it.

Traini pointed to a clear indicator of employee dissatisfaction in the high level of turnover among drivers.

"If you don't treat employees good they quit," he said. "As a parent I don't like to hear that my daughters have had four different bus drivers already the year."

Not all bus drivers are dissatisfied with First Student however. Danny Shannon, a four year driver in Homer, said he opposes the union on both political and religious grounds.

"I'm very opposed to forced unionism," Shannon said, explaining that the union makes it difficult for non-union employees like himself to work.

First Student policy is to hire both union and non-union workers.

Shannon feels that economically, unions are detrimental to the surrounding communities.

"Bus drivers get paid through tax money, when we demand more money, taxes go up. In terms of real spending, unions hurt everyone except union leaders and politicians," he said.

Shannon said he's happy with his pay and benefits. Shannon reported earning $15 per hour and works 20 hours per week.

"It's a part-time job, how many part-time jobs offer health insurance that the employer pays the majority of," he said.

He blamed employee turnover on the nature of the employees, pointing out that many drivers have a separate source of income or are retired, and drive busses on the side. He also said that he thinks a high population turnover in the area contributes to employee turnover.

Shannon said he's tired of the issue, and complained that children are being used as a tool in the negotiations.

"I think it's disgusting the way they use children as pawns to force the issue," he said.

Dante Petri can be reached at dante.petri@peninsulaclarion.com

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