UPDATE: Seattle school bus drivers return to work

Drivers, First Student at impasse after months of talks

Update (Feb. 12): Seattle school bus drivers were back at work on Monday morning, after ratifying a new contract by a 97-percent margin over the weekend.

Teamsters Local 174 and First Student announced they had reached a tentative agreement on Friday afternoon.

The vote by union members marked the end of a nine-day strike, which began after the two sides reached an impasse in negotiations over health care and retirement benefits.

According to Local 174, the agreement provides, “quality healthcare at an affordable cost,” along with a Teamster pension plan for the first time ever for contracted Seattle school bus drivers.  

“I am so proud of this group for their incredible courage, strength, and solidarity,” said Local 174 Secretary-Treasurer Rick Hicks in a press reelase. “We are also thankful to the support from the community – the parents, the teachers, the politicians and all our sisters and brothers in the labor movement who brought strength to the Teamsters on the picket line. Everyone who made a phone call, walked a picket line, sent an email, or just honked their horn as they drove by — without you, we wouldn’t be here right now.”

Approximately 12,000 students normally ride a yellow bus each day. 

Original story: An impasse in negotiations between bus drivers and the company that contracts with Seattle Public Schools for bus service forced parents to find alternative methods of transportation for their children.

Thursday marked the first day of a strike of approximately 400 drivers — with active picket lines outside bus lots in South Park and Lake City — after several months of talks with First Student failed to bring an agreement over healthcare and retirement benefits.

And unlike a one-day strike in November, this one stands to continue until a deal is reached.

Teamsters Local 174 spokesperson Jamie Fleming said Friday that First Student, “clearly did not bring their wallet when they knew they were going to have to,” from the outset of talks last summer. The only change came after that November strike, she said, when the company included health care coverage for individuals but “nothing even remotely affordable for spouses and families.”

That offer was rejected in early January by a margin of 85 percent among voting drivers.

The latest proposal from First Student after a negotiating session last Tuesday was little different, she said, except for one minor change impacting 22 of the 400 drivers.

But the company countered in its own statement earlier in the week, framing the latest offer as one with an, “expanded benefits package,” including comprehensive health care coverage for full-time drivers and their families. The company would cover 80 percent of annual premiums for part-timers, and the contract also includes a 401(k) retirement plan with company match, said Chris Kemper, senior director of corporate communications, in a release.

Fleming said the most recent offer was, “a good first step.”

“They just need to make a second step, and that’ll probably be enough to get these drivers back to work,” she said.

Meanwhile, the district said Thursday that service for some bus routes may be provided as the strike continues, with First Student prioritizing special education routes where possible. The district’s transportation office will call families the night before if a driver is available for their route.

Students who miss class due to the strike will not be granted an excused absence, and families are encouraged to make alternate plans, including carpools, walking school buses with neighbors, or — for older students — taking public transportation. Parents who cannot get their children to school are asked to notify their school, and missed classwork, homework, and tests may be made up at the discretion of each teacher.

Athletic events will go on as scheduled with the use of charter buses, but all field trips will be canceled for the duration of the strike.

If the strike continues, the drivers will have some company on the picket lines, joined by the teachers union Wednesday for a half-day walkout after students are dismissed for early release.

Seattle Education Association President Phyllis Campano said the union believes everybody deserves healthcare and a secure retirement, and that the display of solidarity is about showing how important each part of public education is, including transportation.

“We want the kids ready to learn once they get to school, and the bus drivers are the first people they interact with,” she said.

She also noted that First Student posted a $6 billion profit last year.

“They can afford to pay for healthcare and retirement for these people, and they’re choosing not to,” she said.

The tentative plan calls for SEA members to picket at the bus barns and key intersections around the city.

“We all hope that First Student steps up and takes care of this issue and gets this resolved as soon as possible,” Campano said. “I know its frustrating for the parents, its also frustrating for everybody else involved as well, so First Student really needs to step up.”

Until then, drivers are prepared to stay on the picket lines, where Fleming said they’ve received strong community support.

“If First Student wants to come back to the bargaining table,” she said, “we will be there in five minutes flat.”

As of Monday, there were no major updates.

“Our side is working and brainstorming and trying to find some way to get this resolved,” she said.

According to Fleming, First Student had doubled its offer to drivers to $50 a day to cross the picket line, but was finding little response from strikers.

“It’s not working,” she said. “The line is still holding strong. We’re really proud of these guys.”

This story will be updated. To comment on this story, write to QAMagNews@nwlink.com.