Azuré Hills-Wilson felt a part of a community recently when she and more than 200 Teamsters from around the country gathered in Chicago for the 2012 Teamsters School Bus Workers Congress.
“Since we’ve become Teamsters, we’ve been able to stop favoritism and the morale at work has changed. We are happier, feel safer and we are not afraid to speak up,” said Hills-Wilson, a First Student driver in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and a member of Local 777 in Lyons, Ill. “I’ve gained so much knowledge here from other Teamsters to take back to my location and share with my fellow drivers.”
Hills-Wilson is one of the more than 35,000 school bus workers who have organized with the Teamsters since the union’s Drive Up Standards campaign to improve safety, service and working conditions in the school bus industry began in 2006. Her employer, First Student, is the nation’s largest student transportation company, and now the third-largest Teamster employer.
The two-day Teamsters School Bus Workers Congress provided the opportunity for school bus drivers, monitors and Teamster local union representatives from around the country to participate in a national dialogue, learn more about the school bus industry and the Teamsters’ role in driving up standards, all in preparation for a year of increased activity.
The event also featured the opportunity for education through dozens of workshops, as well as an impressive lineup of speakers from around the globe.
“There is a war on workers being waged by anti-worker politicians and employers, but Teamsters are fighting back. While we have a lot more work to do, we’ve built a movement of school bus workers across North America who are gaining the respect, dignity and working conditions that they deserve,” said Jim Hoffa, Teamsters General President.
Rick Middleton, International Vice President and chair of the union’s national school bus campaign, pointed to the union’s success in protecting workers’ rights at First Student as having laid the groundwork at other private, multinational school bus companies, noting that what started in local bus yards became a global movement of school bus workers, an unstoppable force for change.
John T. Coli, International Vice President and President of Joint Council 25, welcomed the participants to Chicago and gave a warm welcome to the 268 Alpha School Bus drivers and attendants in Crestwood, Ill., who joined Local 777 during the event. Alpha is a subsidiary of the Cook-Illinois Corporation, the nation’s sixth-largest private provider of student transportation. Cook-Illinois workers have formed the Cook Action Network and engaged in a long-term campaign to bring workers’ rights and school bus safety to the company.
The national gathering also looked at workers’ rights abuses and safety issues at the United Kingdom-based National Express Group, parent company to Durham School Services in the U.S. and Stock Transportation in Canada.
The event hosted global partners from Teamsters sister union Unite the Union in the U.K. and the International Transport Workers’ Federation, and even included a video teleconference with trade unionists in Australia.
Teamster school bus workers know firsthand the difference a union makes. School bus workers are required to have professional licensing and training in order to skillfully and safely transport children to and from school. If you ask a nonunion school bus worker what he or she needs most, the likely answer is respect, fairness and safe buses to transport the kids. Meanwhile, many bus workers barely scrape by, working split shifts, receiving paychecks that oftentimes do not accurately reflect all of the hours that they’ve worked.
At the Congress, many workers shared stories of unsafe buses, poverty-level wages, unaffordable health insurance, even homelessness. The Teamster drivers talked about how their lives and working conditions have vastly improved since they became Teamsters, and how they are helping others achieve the same improvements.
Speakers included school bus workers from a number of companies, including First Student, Durham, STA, Latino Express, Illinois Central, Cook-Illinois, Baumann Bus and more.
“If it wasn’t for the union, I don’t know what we would have done,” said Martha Swiatkowski, a driver with Baumann Bus on Long Island, and a member of Local 1205 in Farmingdale, N.Y. “We’ve gotten 20-percent increases in wages, we have seniority and we get paid for all our time worked. You have to really stand strong, and show the company you’re not going to let them push you over or mow you down. Those days are over.”
“Being a school bus driver is not simply driving around; it’s getting involved in a child’s life, getting to know the parents and becoming an important part of that child’s day,” said Cindy Knittig, a member of Local 610 in St. Louis and a 20-year Teamster driver with the Special School District of St. Louis County. “I’ve learned so many things here, enjoyed the workshops, and am motivated to be more active in my union.”
“The wonderful thing this Congress has shown me is the diversity of the union and how far reaching this international brotherhood is,” said Tom White, a member of Local 777 in Lyons, Ill., who drives for Illinois Central School Bus in Mt. Prospect, Ill. “Whether you’ve been a Teamster for a while, or working on your first contract, like me, we can all learn from and encourage each other.”
“If it wasn’t for the union, I don’t know what we would have done.” –Martha Swiatkowski
School Bus Sweep
While workers at companies around the country are organizing with the Teamsters, Joint Council 25 local unions 179 and 777 in Illinois are organizing school bus workers at a record pace. Since late April, more than 580 workers have joined the Teamsters at six Illinois Central School Bus locations, and 268 workers have joined Local 777 at Alpha School Bus. The workers united seeking respect and fairness from their employer.
At Alpha School Bus in Crestwood and Illinois Central in Waukegan, workers faced uphill battles against anti-union, anti-worker management, but they persevered in forming their union, and stand as an example for what workers can achieve when they vow to never give up.
Drivers and attendants at Alpha had been working to organize since 2010. The company resisted their efforts, setting up a fake “union” called the Executive Committee, and despite an internal vote by the workers in 2011 to affiliate with Local 777, the company did not respect the workers’ decision and refused to recognize Local 777 as their union. The workers were determined to have a real union, reorganizing and filing for an NLRB election in June 2012.
“I am excited. I am just so excited,” said Olivia Morris, an Alpha driver. “A Teamster contract will give the Alpha drivers and attendants an equal voice and the confidence to speak up without fear of discipline.”
Recently, in Waukegan, 220 drivers and monitors joined Local 777 in a re-run election. The company’s conduct during the initial organizing campaign led the local to file more than 20 unfair labor practice charges and seven objections to the election. The NLRB found merit in the charges and advised the company that it would pursue a bargaining order.
The company came to a settlement agreement to have a re-run election, reinstate two workers who had been fired during the campaign with full back pay and compensate seven other workers with back pay owed to them.
“These are great victories for these workers, who had the courage and dedication to fight for what is right,” said Jim Glimco, Local 777 President.
“School bus workers in Illinois and around the country are building power and driving up standards in the school bus industry by joining the Teamsters. We look forward to representing these hardworking school bus members,” said John T. Coli, International Vice President and President of Joint Council 25.
Connecticut School Bus Driver Knits for Children
Lettie Nash has given a gift to all 40 of the elementary school students who ride her bus.
“They get excited and say, ‘Thank you, Miss Lettie.’ It makes me real happy that they love them,” said Nash, a member of Local 191 in Bridgeport, Conn.
Nash, who has been a school bus driver for more than 30 years, made each of the students who ride her bus a handmade hat to keep their heads warm this winter. Blue, orange, pink and purple, she’s made one in almost every color.
The project began when one of the Cranbury Elementary School students saw Nash crocheting and asked for a hat.
“I made a hat here and there, then started making three or four hats a day. I made hats for all 40 kids, and for their siblings, too,” Nash said. “Last year, I made a hat and a blanket and donated it to a homeless shelter.”
Nash is humble and never expected all the attention over her project. A parent told a reporter about Nash’s gifts and she was featured in the local newspaper. Donations of yarn and needles promptly arrived at Nash’s school bus yard in Norwalk.
“She didn’t think about the cost. She’s very giving and generous, a really great person,” said Theresa Taylor, Nash’s manager at First Student.
“She’s a wonderful lady and a great Teamster,” said Bobby Flynn, President of Local 191.
When asked what new projects Nash might take on in the future, she replied, “I haven’t thought about it. I crochet wherever I go.”
Bill of Rights
Workers’ Rights are Human Rights
Roberto Rodriguez, an Illinois Central school bus driver, was terminated suddenly. Not coincidentally, he had just stepped up as an outspoken supporter of joining the Teamsters. Rodriguez said he was persecuted for organizing, and he knew that his rights had been violated.
“All of this happened because I was willing to do whatever it takes because we needed a union,” Rodriguez said. “We have rights as workers and they can’t violate our rights. I am thankful there is justice.”
Rodriguez and his co-workers at Illinois Central in Waukegan, Ill., now finally have their union. They’re members of Local 777 in Lyons, Ill. For many workers around the country who do not have but want union representation, it is a constant struggle to maintain their rights in the work environment.
Recognizing this, hundreds of Teamster school bus drivers and monitors recently unanimously ratified a “School Bus Workers’ Bill of Rights.” The document was announced at the recent School Bus Workers Congress.
Among those rights are the right to good faith collective bargaining, freedom of association, due process to resolve workplace issues, dignity and respect on the job, freedom of speech, a safe workplace, fair and honest treatment, protection from discrimination and more.