by Kelsey Hamlin
(Updated 2/10/18 @ 5:24pm)
Hundreds of educators joined with striking bus drivers on the picket line Wednesday at a number of protest hubs throughout Seattle.
The gulf between the drivers, represented by the Teamsters union, and First Student, a subcontractor with Seattle Public Schools, has widened since a one-day strike in Nov. 2017 after the two sides failed to negotiate an agreement on improved healthcare and retirement benefits in ensuing months.
Wednesday marked the drivers’ fifth day of picketing. Thursday afternoon could possibly bring some resolution, as both sides intend to sit-down with a federal mediator for the first time since the strike began.
“[First Student] had no new money whatsoever to put toward healthcare and pension,” said Jamie Fleming of the bus drivers’ union Teamsters Local 174, “which was the whole point.”
The union says the healthcare plan initially offered by First Student was so unaffordable that approximately six percent of the drivers purchased it.
As for the students, SPS reports more than 12,000 of its nearly 54,000 students ride a First Student bus. The yellow buses serve mostly elementary and middle school kids. SPS has subsequently told families to make arrangements for their children to attend school. An absence due to transportation issues is not considered an excused absence under state law. Tardiness due to lack of transportation, however, may be excused.
Though the strike may put parents and students in a difficult place, Fleming said parents reactions have been positive.
“The parents have been incredibly supportive from what I’ve seen,” she said. “The parents love the bus drivers and the bus drivers love their kids. They have a relationship with these students.
First Student doesn’t care at all, what they care about is the profit margin.”
South Seattle Emerald has reached out to First Student for comment but did not receive a response by the time of publication. This article will be updated should they respond.
Wednesday’s strike began at 1:15 p.m. at 5 different locations around the city, with dozens of Seattle teachers appearing alongside the bus drivers.
The Seattle Education Association, which represents 5000 Seattle public educators, made the decision last week to join the bus drivers to demonstrate support while not disrupting the school day. Wednesday was a half day for students, with the remainder of it designated for teacher planning.
In South Seattle, school nurses, teachers assistants, parents and students from Emerson elementary, Orca K-8 and Rainier Beach High School joined the bus drivers on the picket line at the local bus depot to chant “What do we want? Healthcare. When do we want it now”.
Long-term Rainier Beach High substitute and Spanish teacher Darrin Hoop, who joined the picket line, said he felt his presences was returning the favor to bus drivers who also showed up in solidarity with the teachers strike back in 2015.
“We have arguably the two richest people on the planet who live in this area but yet we have people who are responsible for the safety of our children, students, who don’t have proper health care, don’t have proper retirement benefits,” Hoop said. “They deserve that.”
Hoop feels it’s important everyone stand in solidarity during the modern labor movement. It lays the groundwork for future workers, he argued. The Seattle Educators Association contract also expires at the end of this year.
“We want to send a message to the district that all union workers, anybody at the school, we have each other’s backs and we’re going to stick together and support each other,” Hoop said. “I think healthcare and retirement benefits are human rights everybody should have. It’s just criminal that this isn’t a priority for either the district or for the company.”
Student First attempted to negotiate with drivers Jan. 6 but the drivers rejected the proposal.
“It wasn’t enough to meet their needs,” Fleming said. She cited no pension and unaffordable family coverage for insurance. “Their children would’ve been totally uninsured,” she said.
Wednesday’s picket lines featured a wide range of faces: old, young, white and people of color, parents, teachers, and bus drivers.
“Everyone is standing together in solidarity on this picket line,” Fleming said. “Even people who don’t need healthcare, because they have it from some other source, are out here supporting their brothers and sisters. [The drivers] want nothing more than to be back to work.”
As of this article’s publication, only 70 of the 395 regular First Student drivers have returned to work. First Student has tried to convince picketers to cease their protests by sending text messages to their workers en masse. One such message was sent yesterday: “How much is the strike costing you?”
First Student also sent prior text messages offering cash to drivers who stepped away from the picket line. Initially $25 a day, and later $50, according to Fleming. She said this move is “trying to make people feel bad” and “manipulating them.”
She also said the Seattle School District distributed a letter Oct. 31, 2017, with intent to fine First Student $1 million a day if routes were missed. This letter has not been verified. The contract between First Student and SPS, however, does state liquidating damages should routes go awry.
SPS spokesperson Kim Schmanke said they’re waiting until the situation is fully resolved before liquidating damages. The issue is subject to potential dispute and legal strategy.
“The district continues to urge both parties to quickly resolve their dispute,” Schmanke wrote in an email. “First Student and the Teamsters Union 174 are private parties and are working with a federal mediator to resolve the contract issues. For now, the best course of action is urging both sides to work with the mediator and reach a fair resolution.”
Meanwhile, drivers remain irritated First Student hasn’t paid a price while families have. Drivers ask why SPS hasn’t followed through on their promise and felt if they did, the strike not have escalated.
First Student’s contract with SPS, contains enforceable agreements. One such agreement is a peaceful resolution to disputes associated with organizing efforts such that disruptions are minimized. This means disputes shouldn’t get to the point of undermining district interests, which includes picketing, work stoppages and other activities that disrupt services to the district.
Without reaching an agreement, First Student must provide a rational explanation as to why not.
“If the Contractor is contacted by any such labor organization and is unable to reach an agreement, upon request by the District, the Contractor must: ( 1) represent that proposals were exchanged or requested,” the contract reads; “and (2) represent that a face to face meeting to discuss the proposals was held or requested; and (3) present a rational explanation for why agreement was not reached.”
Failure to comply with any of these items allows the district to void its contract or to seek actual damages to the district — up to $10,000 for each violation.
Within the contract, the subcontractor also said it would provide healthcare benefits to drivers working 30 or more hours a week. The District asked how much it would cost to provide benefits to those working more than 20 hours a week instead and concluded the additional $1.7 million a year to do it was fiscally impossible. Specifically, the contract cites a $74 million shortfall as prohibiting the change.
SPS agreed to pay First Student up to $29,637,160 for the first year. First Student workers instead affectionately call the subcontractor “last student.”
[Update]: In a statement, SPS officials said Friday that First Student and Teamsters Local 174 leadership came to terms on a fully-recommended tentative agreement.
“The vote will take place tomorrow, Saturday, February 10 at 10:00 a.m.,” the statement from SPS officials reads. “Upon ratification, yellow bus service will resume on Monday.”
After the vote Saturday, the strike had officially ended.
Kelsey Hamlin is a freelance reporter with various Seattle publications. She graduated with interdisciplinary Honors, a B.A. in journalism and a minor in Law, Societies & Justice from the University of Washington. Hamlin served as President and VP for the UW’s Society of Professional Journalists over the past two years. Find her on Twitter @ItsKelseyHamlin or see more of her articles on her website.