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Originally published Tuesday, February 18, 2014 at 8:59 PM

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School-bus drivers warn of strike preparation in Seattle

The union representing bus drivers for the Seattle school district warns that it is preparing for a strike against private contractor First Student.


Seattle Times education reporter

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The union representing about 450 bus drivers for the Seattle school district says it’s preparing to strike, after negotiators failed to resolve disputes over sick leave and health care.

Teamsters Local 174 in Tukwila announced on Tuesday that it’s preparing for a strike against First Student, a private contractor that provides busing for nearly 28,000 kids who attend Seattle Public Schools.

A spokesperson for the Ohio-based First Student said the company does not discuss the specifics of contract negotiations but is “fully committed to reaching an agreement that is fair and equitable for both parties.”

The two sides last met on Feb. 7, when First Student submitted its “last, best and final offer,” said Michael Gonzales, spokesman for Local 174. Negotiators penciled in Feb. 27 for a potential negotiating session, but as of Tuesday afternoon, neither side had agreed to meet on that date.

“If we do get back together that day, I would hope that some things would change,” Gonzales said.

He said the union is warning parents that a strike could happen, but he wouldn’t say when it would begin. The district’s students are off this week for the midwinter break.

“The last thing we would want to do is actually have a labor dispute before the parents of the schoolchildren have been adequately notified so they can prepare a way to get their kids to and back from school,” Gonzales said.

Last week, the union invoked a mandatory five-day cooling-off period required by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Gonzales said.

“That cooling-off period is now completed, so there’s no contractual obligation that we have left in order to strike First Student here locally,” Gonzales said.

Seattle Public Schools said in a news release Tuesday afternoon that it had not been informed that the cooling-off period had been invoked. First Student is required to provide replacement drivers in case of a strike, according to the release.

The district is in the second year of a three-year contract it awarded to First Student in April 2012, worth about $26 million a year, according to district spokeswoman Teresa Wippel.

First Student operates in 38 states and nine Canadian provinces, providing bus service for about 1,400 school districts, according to its website.

Gonzales says the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has a national contract with First Student covering certain working terms and conditions, but drivers can negotiate subcontracts tailored to local school districts.

Local 174 organized the Seattle drivers and was certified by the National Labor Relations Board to represent them last June.

The union is negotiating its first subcontract for the Seattle drivers. On Nov. 17, the membership empowered union leaders to call a strike if necessary, which means no further votes would be needed to proceed.

The union says the health plan that First Student is offering is too expensive.

An individual health plan would cost drivers 18 percent of their income (based on a median wage of about $17.45 hour and an average 30-hour week), Gonzales said. Family plans would cost 52 percent of total pay.

“They put a medical plan on the table that basically no one will be able to afford,” Gonzales said.

He said First Student is offering two sick-leave days a year and is asking members to waive their rights to more generous sick-leave provisions in the city of Seattle’s Paid Sick Time and Safe Time ordinance, which took effect Sept. 1, 2012.

The union questions whether such a waiver would be legal, Gonzales said.

First Student is a division — along with Greyhound — of FirstGroup, a transportation company operating in North America and the United Kingdom.

John Higgins: 206-464-3145 or jhiggins@seattletimes.com On Twitter @jhigginsST



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