Teamsters rally city school bus drivers

Employees of First Student Inc. to vote next week on issue of union representation


Drivers and attendants employed by the city school system's largest bus contractor, First Student Inc., met with Teamsters officials at a rally yesterday and then marched onto their employer's bus lot to demand improved bus maintenance and health benefits.

"Time after time we have asked First Student to respect us," said Sheila Wactor, a First Student bus driver who supports joining the union. "The way to make a change is to vote `yes' [for the union]."

Leading the event at the lot in White Marsh was Jim Hoffa, general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the son of Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters' leader who mysteriously vanished 31 years ago and is presumed dead.

Yesterday, Hoffa encouraged drivers to stand up to First Student management and demand better wages and health benefits. Workers are to vote June 1 on whether they want to join the union.

"We are going to get you a good contract," Hoffa said.

The Teamsters' event capped several months of intense debate between First Student employees and city schools officials. Bus company employees, as well as some parents, have expressed concerns about the safety of First Student buses. But school system officials have sided with First Student. Recently, the school board entered into a five-year, $5.7 million contract with the company.

Eric Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer, has defended First Student's management practices and safety record. He works closely with the school system's head of transportation, Donald Swift, a former First Student employee.

The manager of local operations for First Student, Tony Bennett, said transportation officials with the city school system review his buses for mechanical problems three times a year.

Bennett said he was in the process of restructuring pay scales, including hourly pay raises, when employees delivered a petition stating their intention to organize. He said he has had to hold off on raises because federal law prohibits such action during union organizing efforts.

"We are at a real disadvantage at this point," Bennett said. "We are having a hard time running our business."

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is trying to organize First Student bus drivers across the nation. This month, more than 100 bus drivers in Iowa City, Iowa, voted to join the union because they said they feared for the safety of the children they were transporting.

In his speech to First Student employees yesterday, Hoffa blamed some of their problems on President Bush's administration.

"George Bush and his cronies believe in trickle-down," Hoffa said. "We believe in trickle-up."

Many bus drivers and attendants at the rally said they were eager to join the union.

"They have families to feed and so do we," said driver Yalanda Davis, who complained that some drivers were not getting the overtime they were owed. "We are going to feed our families, too."

But while Davis and other drivers mingled with the Teamsters, other First Student employees ate hot dogs and hamburgers with their boss, Bennett. The drivers, who wore anti-union buttons on their safety vests, said they were happy with their pay as well as their health benefits, which they called generous considering they are all part-time employees.

"Any problems now are caused by the union trying to get in here," said Helga Hoffman, who has worked for First Student for seven years. "The conflict around here is just amazing."

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