On the same day that hundreds of teachers, members of the Seattle Educators Association (SEA), walked out in solidarity with striking Seattle school bus drivers, the drivers’ employer, First Student, capitulated and reached out to Teamsters Local 174 to restart negotiations. Three days later, a new contract was ready to be voted on.
On February 10, after a 9-day-long strike, Teamsters Local 174 members ratified the new contract with First Student, the nation’s largest school bus company, by a 97% margin. The vote, by all accounts, had bus drivers crying for joy in the union hall. The contract they won includes not only a more affordable health care plan, but also retirement benefits – a first among First Student contracts nationally.
The previous health care plan’s exorbitant deductible was shrunk from $6,500 per year to $1,350. The copay percentage was lowered from 20% to 18%, and starting in 2020, the health care plan will extend to cover dependents and children with First Student covering 80% of the cost. The contract also includes a retirement plan, starting at 50 cents per hour and moving to $1.00 per hour in 2020. “All of these concessions by the company are very modest compared to the benefits received by other [public – directly employed by the school district] bus drivers in the state.” Says Todd Larson, a driver with Teamsters 174. “We consider it a victory because they were adamant about giving us nothing. This new contract represents the best deal any bargaining group in North America has received from First Student.”
School Board Complicity
The strike throughout its course indicted more than just First Student. According to Larson and other drivers on the line, The Seattle Public School Board in the course of negotiating the incipient contract with First Student, “ knew they still had to address the issue of benefits with the union. [First Student] made an offer that included money for benefits, but the district said it was too expensive, and to come back with an offer that didn’t include benefits. This was in spite of the fact that First Student was the only company that bid for the contract.”
Larry Nyland, superintendent of the School Board has said in the past that health care for the Bus Drivers would be “cost prohibitive,” demonstrating that this strike was not only a victory against the multinational First Student, but against the austerity measures of the Seattle Public School Board.
Part of First Student’s contract with the School Board stipulates a fine for every route not actually run. The strike should build up around $8 million in fines, though there is no indication that the school board is actually collecting on those fines. It remains to be seen how this will play out, as the unwillingness of the School Board to levy fines has fired up Seattle Educators who see this pugnaciousness by the Board rightly as millions of dollars lost for a school district starved of resources.
Workers Solidarity and Fightback
At a recent SEA meeting, representatives from Teamsters Local 174 attended as invited speakers. They thanked the teachers for the huge boost their walkout gave the morale of the strike, and promised that as both unions move forward, SEA could count on the support of the Teamsters in their upcoming fights.
As we said in our previous article covering this strike, for many, this was their first picket line. After this victory, those who took part will be forever changed by striking for their rights for days on end in the cold alongside their fellow workers.
Socialist Alternative members played an important role in the SEA walkout, first making the case for it and then helping mobilize the teachers’ union to stand with bus drivers. Throughout the strike, our members visited the picket line nearly every day. Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant pushed to hold First Student and the Seattle School Board accountable, calling out Superintendent Nyland, sending messages of solidarity to strikers, and walked the picket lines talking to drivers who were eager to voice their stories and spread the word about their struggle. The key component, however, was the overwhelming support the drivers received from the community. Parents wrote letters to the superintendent saying their kids would not cross the picket line, and by and large were behind the Teamsters, even despite regular attacks in the media from First Student.
Public school programs continue to be squeezed by the relentless drive toward privatization, and this means public school resources being constantly on the budget chopping block. The only way to ensure the public education we rely on isn’t scraped hollow, is by forging powerful bonds between all workers in schools, parents and the broader community. The bus drivers’ victory shows us that only together in solidarity can we win a better world.
For Larson, the outcome of the strike was certain once First Student failed to convince union members to scab and cross the picket line – the number of scabs appeared to decrease over the course of the strike. “There are never enough drivers,” Larson said, “They are constantly recruiting and training new drivers. When workers realize they can’t be replaced they realize how much power they have to negotiate fair compensation.”