EAST PROVIDENCE — About 40 school bus workers, their supporters and Teamsters Local 251 union members picketed City Hall before some of them sat in unity in the last three rows at Tuesday night’s East Providence School Committee meeting.
Bus drivers, monitors and aides have asked the Teamsters to negotiate their contracts with Ocean State Transit, the local branch of the New Jersey-based Student Transportation of America, the nation’s second-largest student carrier.
On Monday night, East Providence bus workers voted to authorize Teamster leaders to call a strike if necessary.
Teamsters Business Agent Nick Williams said his purpose in addressing the School Committee was to assure the town that a strike was not imminent and to give an update on the progress of talks. The drivers, monitors and aides work for the bus company, not for the School Committee or the town. The School Committee has a contract with the bus company for bus service, but it does not cover how much workers will be paid.
The union and company had "minuscule movement" in talks from April to January, Williams said, even when they were under arbitration. The strike authorization vote was intended to show the company that the workers would stand together for more than "a nickel here and a nickel there," said Charlene Gomes, 45, one of the longtime drivers who asked the union to represent them. The next meetings are Thursday and Jan. 21, Williams said.
The Teamsters are negotiating for about 200 bus workers who serve East Providence, Barrington and charter schools in Providence. Williams told the School Committee that he was confident they could reach an agreement, if not in the next two meetings, then in a couple of more. He said the Teamsters have negotiated a contract between the company and South Kingstown bus workers.
East Providence organizers have been trying to get collective bargaining for about nine years, Gomes said. The first year, she said, they missed by one vote. A few years ago, the vote was a tie, which amounted to a no for the union. In the most recent round, they campaigned with a motto/logo that said “The Wheels on the Bus Go Union Now,” and in May, enough drivers signed up for the union to begin bargaining with the blessing of the National Labor Relations Board. By November, the monitors and aides also voted to be represented by the union. Once a contract is signed, said Matt Taibi, secretary-treasurer of Local 251, they will all become members of the local.
The contract with the company will also apply to Barrington bus workers.
Signs on the picket line said "Tell Ocean State Transit no substandard wages," and "Support school bus workers in East Providence." Passing drivers honked their support.
Pay, sick leave, fire-code, occupational-safety and environmental violations are at issue, as are unfair labor practices, the union has said.
Williams said, for example, that route-doubling, or requiring bus personnel to pick up and deliver children from two or three routes when other drivers call in sick, should result in more pay.
Supt. Kathryn Crowley told reporters before the meeting that bus drivers are valuable to the schools, that many are East Providence residents and that they have a positive influence on students.
Williams said the first two sessions will start at 10 a.m. and last until 4:30 p.m. at the Teamster headquarters at 121 Brightridge Ave. "The union will get this thing done," he told the school committee. "We're hopeful that we'll get a deal."
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