West Ashley parent Nicole Rhea worries about what she would do if Charleston school bus drivers go on strike.
Rhea’s two children ride a school bus every day, and she isn’t confident that the promised back-up transportation plans will be problem-free.
“Surely, the alternative set-up they have is not completely intact and ready to go,” she said. “I don’t see how someone could think there wouldn’t be (problems).”
The disagreement between the bus drivers and their employer, Durham School Services, heated up Tuesday and remained unresolved. The private company has contracts with the Charleston County School District and Dorchester District 2 to employ its drivers and manage its bus routes.
Negotiations between Durham and its union drivers on a new employment contract continued until late Tuesday in Charleston, but a deal wasn’t reached.
“We’re not close to getting an agreement,” said L.D. Fletcher, president of Teamsters Local 509, which represents drivers in Charleston, Dorchester 2 and Beaufort counties. “The last thing the union and the bus drivers want is a strike. If (Durham) negotiates a contract for fair wages and dignity and respect for employees, then we’ll stay and negotiate. But if we come to an impasse, we’ll do what we have to do.”
Durham has pledged to implement alternative transportation plans if drivers strike. The state Board of Education will consider today a request from Charleston to waive some certification requirements to allow Durham to use out-of-state drivers in case of a strike. Charleston union drivers agreed 186-0 last week to authorize a strike if a deal can’t be reached.
Negotiations with Dorchester 2 were expected to take place today, and its drivers agreed Tuesday 77-0 to authorize a strike.
“That sends a big message to the company that none of their employees are happy working for them with the way they’ve been treated and not resolving safety issue,” Fletcher said.
Durham has been negotiating with the Lowcountry union drivers since last summer. The contracts for Dorchester 2 and Charleston are separate, but the biggest issue for both appears to be drivers’ pay and benefits.
Neither side will discuss details of drivers’ demands or the company’s position. The average Charleston bus drivers is paid $14.65 per hour for 41/2 hours of work each day, and the union appears to have requested a roughly 44 percent pay and benefit increase for the first year of a three-year deal, according to Charleston school officials. Drivers’ pay would increase 20 percent in the two remaining years, according to the district.
Fletcher said those figures weren’t accurate, but he wouldn’t give the correct numbers.
“I want to see how far they’ll go with their lies,” he said.
Fletcher said he had set no deadline for a deal, but Charleston school officials said in a letter to the state they expected to know by Monday whether a strike would occur.
In Charleston, nearly 300 of its 413 drivers are part of the union. In Dorchester 2, about 125 of 165 drivers are part of the union.
Part of the contingency plan being proposed in Charleston calls for using up to 30 out-of-state, non-union drivers. These drivers would have their commercial driver’s licenses but wouldn’t have gone through the state’s training program.
The Board of Education has called a special meeting to discuss the issue. It’s the only item on the agenda.
Fletcher said it was “pitiful that they have to go to the state board to ask them to break the law.”
Deborah Fordham, principal of Mt. Zion Elementary on Johns Island, said more than 90 percent of her school’s students ride a bus, but she’s not heard from parents who are concerned about a potential strike.
She said the school has been assured children still will have a way to get there, and her staff will deal with the situation, as it does when bus problems crop up. On Tuesday, an accident caused the school’s buses to be up to 40 minutes late.
“We would rather have them here 40 minutes late than not at all,” she said. “I do hope they are able to resolve their differences because children need to be in school.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.