Durham School Services says needs to “fine tune” some details before reaching contract agreement with bus drivers

  • Posted: Friday, February 8, 2013 11:24 a.m.

LATEST UPDATE as of 11:11 a.m.

Durham School Services won’t reach a deal with the school bus drivers’ union this week, but it sounds as if that could happen as soon as next week.

“We have made very good progress in discussions with the union, but still need additional time to fine tune some details,” the company said in a statement.

Talks will resume next week, and the union has promised not to strike as long as negotiations continue.

“We appreciate the patience of our employees, our customers and the communities we serve as we work through the bargaining process,” the company said.

Negotiations between the school bus drivers’ union and Durham School Services continued Thursday, but the two sides still haven’t reached an agreement on a new employment contract.

Union bus drivers in Charleston authorized their leadership to call a strike more than three weeks ago, and drivers in Dorchester 2 and Beaufort have followed suit. Intense talks have continued since then.

Durham, the company that employs and pays the bus drivers, released a statement Thursday saying it was returning to the bargaining table and looked forward to “continued progress.”

Teamsters Local 509 did not release any information, but the union has promised not to strike while negotiations are taking place.

Hoyt Wheeler is a retired labor relations professor from the University of South Carolina, and he spent more than 35 years working as a labor arbitrator. Although he’s not involved in the negotiations involving local school bus drivers, he’s been involved in these kinds of situations.

“It sounds to me that both sides are making a real effort to reach an agreement,” he said.

The contract between the union and company likely is a thick document, and he said there are easily 30 issues they could be discussing, such as wages, holidays, health insurance or pensions. Other arguments may be about specific language on topics such as drivers’ job security, Wheeler said.

What usually moves the parties to reach an agreement is a strike deadline, such as when the employees’ contract ends. Locally, the contract expired last summer, and union leaders have said they don’t have any timeline.

Both the number of strikes nationally as well as the length of strikes has been on the decline in recent years, and Wheeler said that “weapon” is not used as frequently as it has been in the past.

“The problem for the union is they have trouble winning strikes,” he said.

Public opinion can be an important factor, too, but companies usually are better at influencing public sentiment, he said. The public tends to blame the union for a strike, regardless of whether the organization caused it, Wheeler said.

“They tend to be wrongly blamed for the strike, but the public doesn’t get that message,” he said.

In Charleston, the union said Durham walked out of negotiations on Tuesday, but Durham denied that claim. Wheeler said walking out can be a negotiation tactic to frighten the other side and show how serious they are.

“The union does usually reflect the views of the workers,” he said. “They really have to meet the demands the workers have.”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.

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