400 Seattle public school bus drivers, members of Teamsters local 174, have been on strike against the corporate bus transportation company, First Student, since February 1.
On February 7, the Seattle Teachers Association staged a walkout in which hundred of teachers flooded the drivers’ picket line, creating a wave of excitement among everyone present. In the midst of the walkout, First Student reached out to the Teamsters to restart negotiations, a testament to the power of workers solidarity.
The most important issue for striking workers is health care. Currently, bus drivers contracted under First Student can only utilize their company’s health care plan if they drive 30 or more hours in a work week, something devilishly difficult for most drivers forced to work the split shift hours mandated by a traditional school day. Only a fraction of the drivers even qualify – for example, only eight out of the 400 drivers on strike are officially classified as “full time,” those who do get to 30 hours per week do so by driving for irregular field trips. On top of this, the health care plan offered by First Student only covers the driver themselves, effectively leaving out any dependents including driver’s children.
The strikers are also fighting for pension benefits, of which this current contract says nothing. Many of the drivers in the fleet are over 50, facing the threat of out-of-reach health care, with nothing to fall back on. At the same time they are disqualified from enrolling to Affordable Health Care plans set up by Obama. Without access to affordable health care, workers face an unpredictable and frightening future.
First Student had refused to budge in negotiations, offering no concessions even after a one-day strike in November last year. Teamsters Local 174, refusing to accept this belligerent attack on the bus drivers, was therefore forced to call an indefinite strike. This was approved by the local rank-and-file by 85% – an overwhelming rejection of First Student’s predatory offer.
First Student is one of the most profitable transport companies in the world, last year alone reporting over 5.6 billion pounds (the firm is UK owned) in revenue; the lion’s share of which comes from their school bus contracts.
Strikers rightly are standing up and saying “No” to the corporate greed of First Student. As of this moment, the strike is entering its seventh day, and striker’s are as ready as ever to fight.
The third day of the strike, the company was already feeling the strain, upping its pittance per diem for scabbing workers from 25 to 50 dollars. Most on the line sharply rejected this, knowing the company’s contract with Seattle Public Schools fines it $3,000 for each route that doesn’t go out. This adds up to approximately one million dollars a day in fines. Strikers said defiantly, “The company would rather pay the fine than health care for our children!” These crumbs offered by First Student are only further fueling the strikers’ mood to fight.
Seattle School Board Fails Drivers
Underlying all this was the decision by the Seattle Public School Board to put out the contract for student bus services to the lowest bidder, with no demands linked to the working conditions and benefits for the drivers. First Student was the lowest bidder. The School Board superintendent Larry Nyland described including health care for the bus drivers in the contract as “cost prohibitive,” while saying nothing of the sort about the health care enjoyed by School Board executives.
Corporate profits and executive benefits cannot come before health care for workers who provide essential services. The school board, if it was serious, would be putting all possible pressure on First Student to pay the fines owed by the company, which, right now if collected, would more than cover the cost of drivers health care in the three year contract, and provide an additional 6 million dollars for the district.
“More pressure is needed directed at the school board to collect these fines” explains Kshama Sawant in a letter to the Seattle School Board which you can read here
Key to wresting the most we can from First Student in this strike will be building support from our communities. Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant, and members of Socialist Alternative have been out on the picket every day since the strike’s inception walking the picket line. We have been distributing solidarity leaflets (you can read it here), talking to passerbys about supporting the strike, and getting the word out to support the drivers.
Every extra body on the picket line, even if only for an hour; every cup of coffee or bagel donated, every statement of solidarity from groups of parents, workers, unions or neighborhoods, every share and demonstration of support on social media, all puts that much more fire under the feet of First Student to give workers what they deserve and helps build the resolve of workers on the picket line. When working people’s lives come under attack by corporate greed, it’s a threat to all of us living on a paycheck.
Socialist Alternative urges you to come out and support the bus driver’s strike.
When we fight together, we can win. Solidarity.