O'Malley meets with bus drivers

Firm that transports city students accused of lax maintenance and safety standards

May 31, 2006|By LYNN ANDERSON | LYNN ANDERSON,SUN REPORTER

Mayor Martin O'Malley met yesterday with school bus drivers who have complained about poor vehicle maintenance and safety standards at First Student Inc., a national bus company that the Teamsters union is trying to organize.

O'Malley told bus drivers that he supported their efforts to organize and improve bus service to some of the city's most vulnerable children, but he did not directly blame First Student. The majority of children who ride school buses in Baltimore are disabled.

"You should never take a bus out if kids are going to be in danger," said O'Malley, who is campaigning to be the Democratic nominee in this year's gubernatorial race. The Teamsters Joint Council 62, an amalgamation of the 11 locals in Maryland, has endorsed O'Malley in the primary.

First Student representatives have defended their maintenance practices and safety standards. The city school board recently voted to approve a new contract with the company for $5.7 million for the next school year. School system officials, including the chief operating officer, who was placed on paid administrative leave last week pending an investigation into a boat trip he planned for co-workers, also have defended the company and its safety record.

But First Student employees, and some parents, have continued to complain. They have collected tales of broken speedometers, wobbly wheels and other mechanical problems, along with leaky roofs that they say could create health hazards for children who are medically frail.

"We are not the ones getting the $5.7 million," said Sheila Wactor, a bus driver with First Student who has taken a lead role in organizing workers. "They are, and they need to be liable."

First Student employees will vote tomorrow on whether they want to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which has launched a national campaign to organize employees at the company. About 100 First Student employees in Iowa City, Iowa voted earlier this month to become union members.

Teamsters representatives have been working closely with Baltimore-area First Student employees in recent months. Jim Hoffa, the teamsters' general president and son of Jimmy Hoffa, the former Teamsters' leader who disappeared more than three decades years ago and is presumed dead, attended a rally with drivers last week in White Marsh.

At the meeting with O'Malley, held at Teamsters Local 570 in the 6900 block of Eastern Ave., First Student drivers talked about some of their concerns, including poor health coverage and union-busting activities.

"We make the money, we carry the precious cargo, why can't we have the same insurance?" asked Rosemarie Sandlin, who has worked at First Student for about seven years. Sandlin said that some employees have to forgo medical treatment because their health insurance is inadequate. They also pay high health care premiums, she said.

"Mr. Mayor, would you help us to get good insurance with our company?" she asked O'Malley.

Another First Student driver, Tina Himes, told the mayor that the company was barraging workers with false information about the Teamsters and that employees who asked too many questions during meetings with management were escorted from the room.

"I find it a little bit ridiculous," Himes said. "They try to convince us that all the Teamsters are telling us is wrong."

O'Malley said he believed in the power of unions and encouraged drivers to work with the Teamsters to improve conditions at their workplace and with their managers. He said the city would continue to use its nonemergency 311 call center to register complaints about school bus safety.

Said O'Malley: "We will continue to work with you."

lynn.anderson@baltsun.com

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