10/9/07

School bus drivers striking to break free from LIUNA

As it heads into a second day of a wildcat strike that forced thousands of students to find alternative transportation, the bus company serving the St. Louis (MO) Public Schools indicated a willingness to meet a key demand of drivers.

"We will honor whatever you decide with respect to union representation, as required by law," a representative of First Student, formerly Laidlaw International, wrote to striking drivers Monday afternoon. On Friday, the drivers and bus monitors filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board stating their intent to split with the School Transportation and Allied Workers' Laborers Local 509, an affiliate of the Laborers' International Union of North America.

The drivers followed up Monday with a walkout to protest what they said was the union's unauthorized approval of a 90-day contract extension. About 500 of the district's 840 drivers were off the job Monday.

Union negotiators and First Student returned to the bargaining table Monday afternoon.

A spokesman for the drivers said they want to bypass the union and negotiate directly with First Student.

"We are willing to do our routes until we can get someone we can trust to sit down with (First Student)," said Andre LaGrand. "We want someone who will be true spokespeople for us, that's what we're looking for."

Wayne Gensler, an area vice president for First Student, said the company is legally bound to meet with Local 509 representatives.

In an effort to head off more disruptions, however, Gensler and First Student invited the drivers — who say representation by the Teamsters would better serve their interests — to join the discussions as well.

"We want to talk with them, but we don't know who to talk with right now," Gensler said.

The district's drivers are asking for higher wages and, if possible, a benefit package. Under the current contract, they receive no benefits.

"All we want is to live like normal people," said driver Venezia Nunley. "We want to be able to go to the doctor, go to the dentist and get eyeglasses so we can see. We make too much for food stamps, we make too much to be eligible for day-care assistance. We're just stuck in the middle."

Meanwhile, disruptions on more than half of the district's 545 bus routes put parents in a bind as well.

Nelson Kennedy left work shortly before 2 p.m., summoned to Carr Lane Middle School to pick up his seventh-grade daughter.

"You always expect something to go wrong with the buses," Kennedy said. "It's just a matter of what degree."

School officials said student attendance across the district averaged 75 percent Monday.

Of the 1,900 students who attend Parkway and Pattonville schools as part of the city-county transfer program, 900 missed classes because of the walkout, said a spokeswoman for the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation.

(stltoday.com)

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