Seattle’s strike, which has left families of some 12,000 students scrambling to find ways to get their children to school, will likely surpass Montreal’s and continue into next week.
Seattle isn’t the first city to find its school district caught between its striking bus drivers and their employer, First Student. In the past month alone, drivers in Southern California and Montreal, Canada, have launched strikes against the giant bus company over contract disputes.
Both strikes ended Wednesday, one day before Seattle’s began.
Like Seattle Public Schools, several districts in those areas were left without bus service. The Southern California strike ended after two weeks, while the Montreal drivers staged a two-day strike.
Seattle’s strike, which has left families of some 12,000 students scrambling to find ways to get their children to school, likely will surpass Montreal’s and continue into next week. First Student and Teamsters Local 174, which represents the 400 bus drivers, appear far from an agreement. Both sides have said they want to return to the negotiating table, but no talks were scheduled through the weekend.
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First Student is the largest school-bus contractor in North America, with more than 50,500 employees who drive 44,00 buses in more than 1,000 school districts. It’s a division of FirstGroup, a company based in England that has revenue of about $7 billion a year, according to the company.
The company is no stranger to labor disputes and other issues.
“It doesn’t surprise us at all that First Student would have all these problems,” Teamsters spokeswoman Jamie Fleming said. “Their business model is based on paying their employees as little as possible with no benefits.”
First Student has maintained that it provides competitive pay and health benefits for its drivers.
“During this difficult time, we are doing everything we can to provide as much service as possible to Seattle Public Schools families,” First Student said in a statement Friday. “We know how important our work is, so any driver who wants to continue to work can certainly do so. First Student remains available and willing to take a call from the union at any time.”
The union members in Southern California who drive buses for the Alhambra, Glendale and Pasadena school districts wanted better pay and health benefits, and had concerns about poor working conditions. Teamsters Local 572, which represents drivers in all three districts, rejected two offers from First Student and then decided to strike, according to the Pasadena Star-News. About 3,000 students in those districts take the bus.
A First Student spokesman told the Pasadena Star-News that the company offered to cover 60 percent of employees’ health care premiums.
In Seattle, the company currently gives full- and part-time drivers up to $1,900 in annual stipends to pay for health premiums. The company’s current offer would pay 80 percent of the premiums for full- and part-time employees as well as 80 percent for the dependents of full-time employees. The union has rejected the offer but hasn’t said publicly what it wants to get. The sides are also at odds over retirement benefits.
In Montreal, 330 school-bus drivers went on strike after negotiations stalled with Autobus Transco, which is owned by First Student. The drivers, represented by a Quebec union, wanted a pay increase and a three-year contract, while the company wanted a five-year contract.
The strike affected about 15,000 Montreal students.
Steilacoom, Pierce County, bus drivers went on strike against First Student in May 2017 to protest their hourly pay of $12.75, which they said wasn’t a livable wage. The drivers, represented by Teamsters Local 313, were only on strike for four hours before the two sides came to an agreement that workers would receive an average of $5 more per hour, the union said. Classes were delayed by two hours.
In addition to the strikes, other districts across the nation have decided to go with another bus provider over concerns about driver behavior, late arrivals and old equipment.
The Shawnee Mission School District in suburban Kansas City, Kansas, for example, changed bus companies last year after concerns about late arrivals. The district documented more than 600 cases in one school year where drivers were late or didn’t pick up students at all, The Kansas City Star reported.
Seattle school district officials have said they had no choice but to hire First Student because it was the only company to bid when its previous contract expired last year. The school district agreed to a three-year contract, worth $27 million a year, through 2020.