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Driving to a Better Future

AFSCME is helping outsourced workers gain dignity and respect on the job. Here is how hundreds of Indianapolis workers employed by international contractor First Student Inc. built a union — and laid the groundwork for a better future — with Council 62.

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By Clyde Weiss

AFSCME is helping outsourced workers gain dignity and respect on the job. Here is how hundreds of Indianapolis workers employed by international contractor First Student Inc. built a union — and laid the groundwork for a better future — with Council 62.

Indianapolis employees of school bus operator First Student Inc.

We Did It! – Indianapolis employees of school bus operator First Student Inc. have built a union with Council 62. Shown, left to right, are bus driver Grigitte Yancey, bus monitor Melissa Lawrence, drivers Michael Hall and LaVitra Evans, and monitor Toshua Wallace-Williams.
Photo Credit: Tom Strickland

 

About 19,000 students who attend the Indianapolis Public Schools place their safety in the hands of some 400 bus drivers, monitors and mechanics who work for First Student Inc., the largest school bus contractor, worldwide. Driver Grigitte Yancey places her trust in that same company — her employer — to make sure her vehicle is roadworthy.

Yancey is confident that the mechanics won’t let her drive a bus in poor condition. But until she and her co-workers joined forces with Council 62 last August and won their first contract this April, she had little faith that her managers were as concerned about safety as they were about profits, which are sent to England where the company is based.

“We’d write up these buses and tell the mechanics the steering wasn’t working, or the emergency exit doors weren’t operating,” but the problems wouldn’t get fixed, she says. “The mechanics couldn’t do their jobs effectively because management wouldn’t order the parts.”

Yancey refused to drive mechanically unsound buses, even though some First Student managers would occasionally insult and even threaten to terminate drivers who insisted on safety versus meeting a schedule. She says some other drivers did go out in buses in need of maintenance because “they wanted to keep their job.”

That hasn’t been the case since the First Student employees joined AFSCME and won a first contract, which addressed their concerns. “Working conditions have already made a 180 degree turn, and safety has improved,” says David Warrick, executive director of Council 62 and also an International vice president. “The contract ensures they will be treated with dignity and respect.”

Breaking New Ground

The First Student campaign is one of several being launched by AFSCME affiliates as part of a national initiative to organize workers in the private sector who provide publicly funded services.

Across the country, AFSCME represents more than 150,000 public school employees — with the majority receiving paychecks directly from their school districts. The rest work for private contractors, including more than 1,600 employed by First Student in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Helping First Student personnel gain a voice on the job through organizing is critical. As the country’s largest private school bus operations firm (with nearly 100,000 people throughout the United States after merging with Laidlaw, another bus operator), the company represents a national threat to public employees in the bus transportation sector. The reason is simple: If First Student and similar firms can win school district contracts by underpaying its workers, those employed in the public sector — and who earn more and receive better benefits — could find themselves outsourced or unemployed.

By raising the wages and benefits of First Student workers, Council 62 is making it more difficult for Indianapolis Public Schools to outsource some 300 drivers, monitors and mechanics who still work directly for the district and who have been represented by AFSCME for the past three decades.

A good union contract also holds First Student accountable to basic labor standards.

In July 2001, the Indianapolis Public Schools awarded a contract to First Student to operate about 70 percent of bus routes. Since then, unjust treatment at the hands of some company managers smoldered until the employees “just couldn’t take it any more,” recalls driver Michael Hall. “I saw a lot of good employees leave.”

A fellow First Student driver, LaVitra Evans, agrees. “How people could just lose their jobs for no reason at all — that really concerned me,” she says. “A lot of people were getting fired who shouldn’t have been.”

Favoritism on shift and route selections added fuel to the fire. Melissa Lawrence, a monitor who helps children board and get off their bus, plus straps them into their seats and makes sure they’re well-behaved in transit, says management assigned the best routes “to people they liked” instead of through seniority.

Paving the Road

Though resolute in their goal to gain some control over their workplace conditions, First Student’s employees knew they faced a difficult battle. Yancey knew she needed a lot of help if they were going to succeed.

Among the first co-workers she reached out to was her bus monitor and friend, Toshua Wallace-Williams, who says management’s flagrant refusal to follow seniority rules when making assignments was a big reason she was ready to stand up for her rights.

Bus driver Evans was also prepared to fight for a union. “I knew it would benefit us in the long run,” says the eight-year employee of First Student. “I just didn’t think people were being treated right, and I saw the union as a way to change that.”

Hall, another bus driver, knew that an organizing campaign would be tough. But he also believed the workers were up to the challenge. “Some people have been here 20 years and have nothing to show for it — no retirement plan, no benefits, no nothing,” he explains. “This was the right time and the right place to get something like this done.”

In March 2007, the activists quietly launched their organizing drive to build support without triggering employer opposition. Thirteen employees meeting at a local restaurant formed the “Indy First Student Organizing Committee.”

The group soon began knocking on the doors of fellow workers, collecting about 80 signed membership authorization cards. Then, one morning in May, they “went public” by distributing leaflets at the worksite and delivering a letter to First Student officially announcing the campaign.

At that point, some managers tried to intimidate the workers and shut down the organizing drive. “They were making things harder on people they knew were involved in the union — messing with people’s hours,” recalls Lawrence, the monitor.

First Student also passed out leaflets telling of the disadvantages of joining a union, but driver Hall says that tactic failed “because people were really fed up.” Within two weeks of the campaign’s launch, 65 percent of First Student’s 400 employees had signed authorization cards, more than twice what they needed to call for an election. Just before summer break in June 2007, the organizing committee held a meeting with the employees to explain what to expect when they returned, and to answer any lingering questions.

Union ‘Yes’

Once school resumed in August, First Student managers cracked down even harder, meeting individually with employees and holding mandatory group meetings in a final effort to frighten the workers and pressure them to vote “no.” It didn’t work. On August 21, the vote was an overwhelming “Yes!” for AFSCME.

Victory quickly gave way to urgency: changing their hard-won election win into a binding contract. A bargaining committee — including Yancey, Evans, Wallace-Williams and Hall — was elected to review the workers’ key concerns and establish goals. Better pay was important, says Hall, “but sometimes just having a voice in the company you work for is more important than the money.”

They also wanted an affordable health plan. Although First Student had offered individual medical coverage, the company contributed nothing toward the premiums.

Through complex bargaining, the workers achieved many of their goals and ratified their first contract by a two-to-one margin. “I feel our contract is a good start, like a foot in the door,” says Evans.

First Student employees still receive less pay and fewer benefits than their colleagues who work directly for the school district. But Warrick says the private-sector folks understand they’ve taken “a step in the right direction.” He adds, “Organizing at First Student and improving wages and benefits will help protect other AFSCME-represented positions. It won’t be as easy for First Student to undercut Indianapolis Public Schools’ workers” when the district calls for new transportation bids in years to come.

Council 62 now represents more than 1,300 employees who perform services (directly or by contract) for Indianapolis Public Schools, including custodians, maintenance workers, food service employees, teaching assistants, transportation workers and mechanics.

A Fresh Start

Yancey, president of her new union, Local 3826, says their first contract gives her hope “that we can have an environment where we can just do our job.”

“Now, you can’t just talk to us any kind of way. It’s about giving us respect,” she explains. “Management cannot come in and say, ‘We’re going to change this and that, or fire you for this or that.’ As long as we have the union, they’ll have to go by the contract.”

A single parent who says she lives “from paycheck to paycheck,” Yancey notes that the contract also will make it just a little easier to make ends meet.

Evans, her union’s new recording secretary, says she’s already noticed encouraging signs — such as better communications with management — since the union was formed. “Hopefully, I will be here long enough to see a real positive change, as far as people being treated fairly and making decent pay.”

Lawrence says she has “high hopes” for her future as well. “With the management they have in position now — and with the strong union we’re building — it’s going to get better. We’ll have a whole new ballgame for the next school year.”

Now treasurer of his union, Hall credits the “unique blend of the organizing committee” for their success. “You need people who are committed, people who are willing to hit the streets and knock on people’s doors to make them realize why it’s in their interest to have some voice in what’s happening in their lives — to make it a better place to work.”

Building a union and winning a fair contract “makes me feel proud,” says Wallace-Williams, the local’s new executive board member. “If anybody is trying to get a union, I say: Go for it!”

A Real Voice: A First Contract

“What we were getting before was nothing, and now we’re getting something,” says First Student bus monitor Melissa Lawrence. “I think the bargaining committee did a good job.” Here are the contract’s highlights:

  • Health care is more affordable: First Student will now pay 50 percent of insurance premiums ($742 to $1,150 per year per employee).
  • Mechanics now have clear authority to remove unsafe buses from service.
  • Grievance procedures are now in place, plus binding arbitration that will help deal with any alleged management mistreatment.
  • Strict seniority rule is now followed for granting routes, and a union representative must be present when routes are chosen. “They won’t be done under the table,” says Lawrence.
  • Hourly wages increased for all job categories, averaging 8.2 percent over three years. A nine-year driver, for example, will make $15.30 an hour at the end of that period.

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