A dispute over wages for Vashon’s school bus drivers could lead to a strike if the group is unable come to an agreement with First Student, the company that provides Vashon’s bus service.
In a disagreement that has delayed union negotiations for months, the drivers, part of the Teamsters Local Union No. 763, say their wages are not equal to those of First Student drivers in other parts of the state. They also claim there are wage inequities among the Vashon drivers themselves and that First Student has stalled negotiations and withheld public information concerning wages in other areas.
The union filed formal charges against First Student with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) last week, said Jason Powell, the Teamsters’ business agent who works out of Tukwila.
“They feel that the company disrespects them,” said Powell, who is involved in negotiating the union contract and has visited Vashon regularly. “They do not believe that anything short of some kind of ugly dispute is going to get them what they deserve.”
No representatives from First Student were able to comment on Monday.
Powell said the group of about 15 regular and substitute bus drivers, who are all Vashon residents, would likely be striking now, had he not discouraged them from doing so. Instead, 11 drivers handed out fliers about the dispute on Monday afternoon in town. The bright orange fliers were headed with the title “Labor dispute could impact student transportation” and asked islanders to call First Student and request that the company continue negotiations and offer Vashon drivers a “contract which is fair and equitable when compared to First Student bus drivers all over Washington state.”
“I believe a peaceful way to work this out is a better way of doing business,” Powell said on Monday. “We’ll give the community the opportunity today to reach out to the company and let them know what they think.”
Michael Soltman, Superintendent of the Vashon Island School District, said he was aware of the dispute, though not familiar with all the details, and he had encouraged both sides to work together toward “an agreement that honors both of their interests,” he said.
A bus driver strike, Soltman said, would be “very difficult for this community to deal with.” At the same time, he said, the district doesn’t have much of a role in the negotiations. In some communities, school bus drivers are employed by school districts. On Vashon, bus service is provided by First Student, a large company, which also operates school buses for Seattle Public Schools and several other school
districts in Washington as well as in 37 other states and nine Canadian provinces.
“It’s really between the company and the Teamsters union,” Soltman said. “The most I can do is encourage them to stay at the table and work cooperatively toward an agreement.”
The school district has contracted with First Student through this coming school year, Soltman said, and would likely bid the contract out again in the spring. However, he said he believed the district is legally required to select the bus company that provides the lowest bid.
Powell said that when the drivers’ previous four-year contract expired a year ago, he researched school bus driver wages around the state and found that Vashon drivers’ wages are about 27 percent below average when compared with drivers who are employed directly by similarly sized school districts.
While the Vashon drivers don’t expect to earn the same wages as the actual school employees, Powell said, he also found that the island drivers on average earn 5 percent less than the drivers employed by First Student in other school districts.
“At the end of the day … they wanted to be treated at least equally, on average, with First Student bus drivers around the state,” he said.
For instance, Powell said, First Student bus drivers in Seattle start out earning $13 per hour and after nine years can earn up to $19.10 per hour. On Vashon, drivers start at $11.10 per hour and can earn $13.45 per hour after five years, with the exception of some senior employees grandfathered in under a previous pay scale.
That grandfathered pay scale is also a cause for tension with First Student. Five Vashon drivers earn $16.40 per hour, the top wage offered on a former pay scale.
While First Student has offered some wage increases for the Vashon drivers and drivers have been happy with progress in the negotiations, Powell said, they still believe it’s only fair to also do away with the grandfathered rate and give all the drivers the opportunity to top out at the higher wage. Doing so would also set the drivers on a pay scale more equal with that of other First Student employees, Powell said.
“What they’ve done is fine if it was attainable by all employees under some kind of reasonable progression,” he said.
Kim Mingo, Senior Director of Field Labor Relations & Human Resources for First Student, who has been involved in the negotiations, said she was not authorized to comment on the situation, and no other spokesperson for First Student was available to comment on Monday.
According to Powell, First Student representatives have said drivers in other districts make more than those on Vashon because those other districts provide First Student more funding. However, when Powell requested financial information to back up their claim, they refused to provide the paperwork, which Powell said should be publicly available, and told Powell he should request the information from the districts themselves.
“The company is obligated to give me that information, so I can do my own research,” Powell said. “If (their offer) is fair, then prove it. That’s what they’re unwilling to do.”
Powell also claims that First Student delayed negotiations by stalling for months and not communicating with the union.
Charges filed last week with the NLRB claim that First Student is bargaining in bad faith and, among other things, refuses to provide public documents pertinent to negotiations. Powell said the federal agency will likely perform an investigation and decide if the complaints warrant legal action.
Bus drivers have said they plan to show for work when school starts next Tuesday, though Powell said it’s possible they could vote to strike after that. A strike would require a vote of more than 50 percent of the group.
“The drivers are committed to staying on the job unless they’re left no other options,” Powell said.