LATEST UPDATE as of 5:20 p.m.: The union representing bus drivers in Charleston and Dorchester says that is has made progress during the past week and a half and plans to resume negotiations with its employer Monday.
Durham School Services, drivers’ employer, didn’t release any new information, other than that they still are negotiating and plan to update the public as progress is made.
A top Durham official said on Thursday that a strike while negotiations are ongoing would be “highly unusual.”
Charleston and Dorchester 2 school officials said Thursday they haven’t been notified of a strike and plan to run their regular Friday bus routes.
LATEST UPDATE AS OF 6:05 a.m.: Charleston and Dorchester 2 buses are running their regular morning and afternoon routes today.
Talks between the school bus drivers’ employer, Durham School Services, and the union are slated to resume today. Durham officials called a strike “highly unusual” while negotiations are ongoing.
Parents are encouraged to have back-up transportation options for their children in case a driver strike is called mid-day.
Durham School Services took a new tactic Wednesday by breaking its silence and releasing details of ongoing negotiations with its unionized bus drivers.
Durham officials previously had said they wouldn’t release that information because they didn’t want to “negotiate the contract in the media,” but they said Wednesday that circumstances had changed and they wanted to share their side of the story.
Union officials responded by saying they had honored Durham’s request not to go through the media, although the company had not.
Meanwhile, Charleston County School Superintendent Nancy McGinley encouraged parents to ensure they had alternative transportation plans for their children in case a mid-day bus strike is called. She said she had no indication that would happen, and buses were scheduled to run their regular routes today.
“We don’t want children to worry about what has become an adult issue,” she said. “I’m saying that I don’t want children to be victimized by this strike. Keeping them safe physically and psychologically is my No. 1 concern.”
Durham employs drivers in Charleston and Dorchester 2 schools.
The union initially demanded a $1.50-per-hour wage increase in Charleston; drivers are making an average of $14.40, said Durham Chief Executive Officer Emeritus John Elliott. The union had reduced that to $1.15 per hour and on Wednesday, they requested a $1 per hour boost, or a nearly 7 percent pay increase.
Elliott, who was not directly involved in negotiations, called union’s request in excess of anything that would be typical in today’s market.
The company countered by offering on Wednesday a 45 cents-per-hour raise, which would be an increase of about 3 percent. That is similar to the amount the company’s contract increased with Charleston County schools this past year.
Dorchester 2 union drivers were slated to provide the company with a salary demand on Wednesday, but Elliott did not have that information.
Elliott said it’s the company’s preference to deal directly with its customers, but the union had been talking with the media during the past 10 days.
“Parents need to know we’re doing everything we can to ensure there’s no interruption in service,” Elliott said. “We want people to know what’s going on.”
The president of Teamsters Local 509, L.D. Fletcher, had talked with The Post and Courier last week, but he never disclosed details of the offers. He hasn’t spoken publicly with the newspaper since Jan. 22, but the union released a statement saying they planned to continue negotiations today.
“We are not on strike,” the statement read. “We still hope to reach an agreement with the company that improves safety and provides the drivers and monitors with dignity and respect.”
Beaufort County drivers also are a part of the Teamsters Local 509 union, and they, like drivers in Charleston and Dorchester 2, have authorized a strike. The average wage there is $14.65 per hour, and the company made a comparable raise offer as it did in Charleston, Elliott said.
Berkeley County School District, which employs its bus drivers, has an average pay between $13.50 per hour and $14 per hour. Drivers in most districts are part time and work about 41/2-hour days.
A possible strike
Elliott said the fact that negotiations were continuing was a good sign.
“It would, I believe, be highly unusual for a strike to occur while negotiations are occurring,” Elliott said. “We’re talking with the hope of reaching a resolution so we don’t interfere with students going to and from school.”
Talks today were slated to focus on the union’s contract with Beaufort, and Elliott said company officials are prepared to be in town through the weekend if it means a deal can be reached.
Further talks with Charleston and Dorchester had not been scheduled when Elliott spoke with media, but he said those dates and times usually are established during negotiating sessions.
He characterized the union negotiations as “extremely difficult — and more difficult than it needed to be.”
“We clearly wish we hadn’t gotten to this point,” he said. “The longer it goes, the more difficult it gets for everyone.”
The Charleston County School Board called an emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon and discussed legal and liability issues related to a potential strike. No decisions were made.
McGinley said the district was planning for the worst and hoping for the best. It’s always a tense time when negotiations drag on, and anxiety is heightened, she said.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean “doom and gloom,” and she said she hopes there is compromise and it’s a win-win for all involved.
“I think there is goodwill on both sides to avoid strike,” she said. “Many bus drivers also are parents and have a vested interest in keeping schools open.”
McGinley said she doesn’t plan to cancel schools, but she asked parents to have a way for their children to get home should a strike be called mid-day. If a strike happens, only students in wheelchairs would be provided transportation, she said.
She and Dorchester 2 School Superintendent Joe Pye have been in constant communication about how to keep children safe.
“Our No. 1 goal is to keep children safe from harm and preserve instructional time,” she said. “And we are clear on which comes first.”
She encouraged parents not to call their schools if they hear rumors but instead to check the district’s website and social media accounts as well as local media. Any new information will be communicated through those avenues as soon as it is available, she said.
Social media outlets for assistance:
The community hashtag for updates on the potential driver strike is #chsbus
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.