Monday, April 23, 2012

Privatized bus drivers vote to unionize Dorchester

Hurray for exercising one's federal rights to organize with one's co-workers into a union, and negotiate the terms of one's own life, livelihood and career path.

This is called taking control of one's own destiny, and Dorchester's bus drivers deserve recognition for their courage and tenacity.

It happened a week or more ago, but it's worth the attention still, as our lawmakers seem dead-set on privatizing the rest of South Carolina's school bus drivers -- a step that opens the door for even more privatized drivers to invite union representation.

Reporter Jim Tatum framed the situation in the Journal-Scene on April 13:

Bus drivers and monitors for Durham School Services, the private corporation that currently operates the Dorchester District 2 school bus services, will vote today on whether to join the International Brotherhood of Teamsters labor union.

Union organizers Annette Hill and Sabrina Isom, both bus drivers for Durham, say they believe most of their co-workers, some 160 strong, are ready to go union.

Fifty percent plus one of the employees must vote yes for the drivers to unionize, they said.

“I think we’ll get that and more,” Hill said. “People want to be treated with dignity on the job.”

Hill says she has been a bus driver for four years, first with the district, then with Durham when the company took over bus operations in July 2011. She says she believes the union can only be a good thing for the employees.

“I don’t see a downside at all,” she said. “We want to drive up the standards; we want job protection; we need a voice in the workplace. We want someone to have our back. I’m a single mother of three and I just can’t see myself coming in one day to tell my children I don’t have a job anymore.”

Organization efforts have been ongoing since the beginning of the year and feedback seems to be strongly pro union, they said.

“We really got on the ball the first of the year,” Isom said. “We’ve been working very hard to get the word out.”

Hill and Isom also said the company, for all its rhetoric of not hindering union activity, is actively campaigning against them.

“We’re seeing all this anti-union material around the office,” Hill said. “Everybody got a packet in the mail at home over the holiday. If they say they don’t oppose it, then why are they putting out all this anti-union material everywhere?”

Most Durham employees nationwide do not belong to unions, but the company does not oppose employees engaging in union activity, Dave Brabender, Durham School Services Regional Manager said.

“The company feels it is very important for employees to vote – and to vote how they honestly feel,” Brabender said. “The company would never hinder that.”

Nonetheless, Brabender noted that, while a union can make promises, it can’t actually deliver on them – that ultimately falls to the company. When Durham Dorchester District 2 contracted with DD2, the company hired the drivers at the same wages the district paid them, and gave them a pay increase, he said. They also have benefits through Durham as well, Brubender said.

Currently, drivers are paid $10.50 per hour for driving their regular assigned routes and are paid $9 an hour for driving any extracurricular activities, he said. The reason for that is because extracurricular activity driving is voluntary extra duty, not assigned responsibility.

Brubender also said that each contract is based on a separate set of circumstances and one must look at the entire picture rather than individual parts.

“There are a lot of things that play into it,” he said.

The Teamsters have a strong and growing presence in South Carolina, L.D. Fletcher, president of Local 509 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said. Thus far, the Teamsters have unionized Durham drivers in Beaufort and Charleston counties. Since that time, the union has successfully negotiated contracts to increase wages and bring added protection to workers who otherwise would not have a voice, Fletcher said.

Fletcher noted that the union does not solicit membership; workers who believe their employers are disparately treating them seek out the union.

DD2 officials say the district does not have an interest in whether the drivers unionize; that is an issue between Durham and its employees.

DD2 outsourced bus operations to Durham in July 2011. The current bus fleet is still owned and maintained by the state of South Carolina.

The contract runs year to year, in this case from July 1, 2011 until June 30, 2012, and calls for the district to pay Durham $136.19 per bus per day to operate the fleet. At the end of the contract year, the DD2 board of trustees can renegotiate with Durham or seek another provider.

If the Durham drivers join the Teamsters, then the District will have to recognize and negotiate with the union, Fletcher said. If thedistrict decides to contract with another bus service provider whose employees are union members, the district would have to recognize and work with that union as well, Fletcher noted.

“If they were to happen to choose a contractor that is not unionized, we’ll just start the organization process again,” he said.

The election will be held today at Durham offices on Boone Hill Road. Polls close at 5:30 p.m. and the results should be known shortly after, Hill said.

Tatum's colleague, reporter Judy Watts, delivered the update later that day:

Teamsters Local 509 is celebrating tonight after winning the vote to unionize Durham Bus Services workers who drive the buses for District 2 Schools.

The vote was 85 to 66, according to organizer Sebrina Isom.

“There were bus drivers and supporters there very happy and hugging each other. They were saying ‘ain’t no stopping us now,’” Isom said in a telephone interview at about 6:30 p.m. tonight.

“Some of them gave me a hug and said they really appreciated all the work I and the others had done to make this happen,” Isom said.

School bus drivers across South Carolina, take note: If the legislature follows through on its promise to privatize your jobs, which leaves you without state health and retirement benefits, this is your alternative. I recommend getting in touch with your co-workers Annette Hill and Sabrina Isom now, to begin preparing yourselves and your co-workers for the transition.

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