Imagine having the opportunity to sit directly in front of the top global leaders of the company you work for, speak your mind and publicly call them to task for unsafe and abusive working conditions.
A group of three school bus workers did just that this week in Birmingham, England. Evelina Moultrie, Lester Hawthorne and Patricia Chillis all work for the same company, Durham School Services, in the United States. Durham is a subsidiary of National Express Group PLC, a multimillion dollar, multinational corporation headquartered in Birmingham. The Durham drivers were part of a delegation of Teamsters, including Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa and International Vice President Rick Middleton, who raised serious workplace concerns to the Board.
Once a year, 10 Board members and Sir John Armitt, the Chairman of the Board of National Express, sit in front of an audience of shareholders to give a report on the status of the company and accept comments.
This year, they opened with an eight-minute video extolling the virtues of the company and its value of “excellence.” The video showed smiling, happy faces, ones quite different from the faces of the workers in the audience who work at this company.
Evelina Moultrie, a Durham driver in Charleston, S.C., and a member of Teamsters Local 509 in West Columbia, S.C., told the Board about issues with overcrowding, as well as insects and mold on the buses. She and her co-workers, with the support of Teamsters Local 509, have been raising their concerns. Parents, the NAACP, political and faith leaders have all spoken out about poor conditions at Durham, which led the Charleston County School Board to recently announce an investigation into Durham’s workplace and safety practices.
At the Board meeting, National Express CEO Dean Finch claimed issues with the Durham buses in Charleston had been resolved.
“When you came to the U.S., they may have taken you to see some ‘perky’ buses, but they are not giving you the real deal,” Moultrie said. “On one bus, you have to use a broomstick to open the door. Some doors, you have to manually pull to keep them closed and safe.”
Moultrie said she and her co-workers love their jobs because they love working with the kids.
The National Express Board referenced a company survey, the results of which they claim resulted in an 89 percent employee positive rating for job enjoyment—this, despite the fact that many workers do not recall being offered a survey, or said they filled out a survey while management hovered over them.
“We love our jobs, but we don’t know where you’re getting this number you throw out, that 89 percent of people at this company enjoy working here. We enjoy working with the kids, but we don’t like the treatment by the management we work for,” Moultrie said. “You say you care about your workers, but you held a town hall meeting to supposedly hear from us while we were all out driving the children on our buses. You made it impossible for us to speak.”
Patricia Chillis, a Durham driver in Aurora, Ill., who is working with her co-workers to form their union with Teamsters Local 777 in Lyons, Ill., told the Board that she bought a blanket for each of the 11 children she transports because the bus she drives would not warm up during Chicago’s cold winter.
“Our toes and fingers were numb. I’m expected to drive a bus like this. I dress for the weather, but not all the kids are dressed for it. They shouldn’t have to sit on a bus that won’t warm up after driving it for almost an hour,” Chillis said.
CEO Finch then suggested that Chillis request to get reimbursed for the cost of the blankets.
“I don’t even know if I will have a job when I go home,” Chillis said.
Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa called on Armitt to ensure the workers would not be retaliated against by management for speaking up, and Armitt gave his word that they would not be retaliated against.
Lester Hawthorne, a Durham monitor in Santa Rosa County, Fla., and a member of Teamsters Local 991 in Mobile, Ala., asked why the company stood in the way of drivers and monitors at his yard joining the Teamsters.
“We voted overwhelmingly to join the Teamsters and your company delayed the certification of our vote. For 14 months Durham did not recognize us. It took the National Labor Relations Board to dismiss all of Durham’s objections to the vote last week and order recognition. Your company still hasn’t sat down to negotiate a contract. Why is management standing in the way of our right to have our union?”
Hoffa called on the Board to end the “bullying tactics” against workers that Durham management employs in the United States.
“Why would you have two policies for how workers are treated, one in the U.S. and one in the U.K.? Don’t put your heads in the sand. Don’t ignore this problem,” Hoffa said.
Teamster allies from the British Unite union, as well as a number of other prominent shareholders based in the U.K., spoke up in support of North American school bus workers.
The topic of workers’ rights and the need for Board oversight dominated the Board meeting. For more than an hour, one shareholder after another raised their hand, to address the Board about these issues, and other shareholders in the audience took note.
The Board Chairman repeatedly contradicted himself, as shareholders did not hesitate to point out. He expressed support for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while also saying the company would work within the norms of the countries they operate in—recognizing that labor standards in the U.S. lag behind Great Britain and other European nations.
Shareholder discontent was made clear in the votes held at the annual meeting.
The Teamsters Union, three local U.K. local authority pension funds and 100 individual investors sponsored shareholder Resolution 22, which called on the Board to improve oversight of workplace policies and practices.
While Resolution 22 was not expected to pass, the impact was significant, as it was the best supported shareholder resolution addressing labor issues filed with a United Kingdom-based company in the last decade. Close to 15 percent of shareholders voted against or withheld vote on the issue. When removing the vote of one Board member who owns a disproportionate percentage of shares (17.36 percent), the total vote against or withheld was 18.96 percent.
To put this into perspective, shareholder resolutions on social and environmental issues, including workplace rights, are rare in the U.K. Of those filed in recent years at companies including BP, Shell and Tesco, the average vote in favor was six percent.
A strong message was also sent to the Board concerning executive pay. Almost 36 percent of shareholders who voted failed to back the company’s annual report on remuneration. A vote to approve the remuneration policy going forward was opposed by 11.5 percent.
The Telegraph newspaper stated that the company is feeling the “brunt of what is shaping up to be a second Shareholder Spring.”
Shareholder revolt is brewing, and Teamsters are leading the way to ensure that workers’ human rights will be respected at National Express’s North American subsidiaries.
The Teamsters Union, National Express workers, shareholder supporters, and Teamster allies, including Unite the Union and the International Transport Workers’ Federation, vowed to keep up the pressure until National Express respects and improves conditions for school bus workers in North America, for the sake of the workers and the children that they transport.