If you go
What: Panel discussion on safety, civil rights concerns with union school bus driversWhen: 6:15 tonightWhere: Embassy Suites Convention Suites, Meeting Room #1, 5055 International Blvd., North CharlestonCost: Free
Sabrina Isom worries about the safety of Lowcountry school buses.
She shares the same concerns as union school bus drivers in Beaufort County, Charleston County and Dorchester 2, and they're speaking out to ensure those issues are addressed.
“They're breaking down, and they're unreliable, and we want to make sure they are not overcrowded,” said Isom, a former 25-year bus driver who represents drivers and monitors in Teamsters Local 509. “We want to make sure they are safe, and to make sure the equipment is safe for children.”
That's one of the topics that will be discussed tonight during a meeting of local union school bus drivers and international union representatives. They are coming together to try to understand about how they can better work with their drivers' employer, National Express, which is the parent company of Durham School Services. State and national labor leaders will host a forum to talk about how Durham handles its union workers in terms of safety and respect.
“It's raising issues so that everyone is aware of what we're dealing with,” said Galen Munroe, a spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters based in Washington, D.C. “This is an information-gathering, fact-finding (international) delegation coming over to find out how National Express conducts business in North America.”
The gathering in North Charleston will be one of two hosted nationally, and officials said the goal is exchanging information to help both American and international labor leaders.
They chose Charleston County as a meeting site because of its number of union drivers, Munroe said. In Charleston County, nearly 300 of its 413 drivers are part of the union. In Dorchester 2, about 125 of 165 drivers are part of the union.
Durham has contracts with Beaufort County, Charleston County and Dorchester 2 school districts to employ its drivers and manage its bus routes. Most drivers in each of those districts have joined the Teamsters Local 509, and that group threatened to strike earlier this year during contentious contract negotiations.
Union drivers approved new five-year contracts with Durham about six weeks ago, and this meeting is not a result of dissatisfaction with those new deals.
“We're not here to talk about those contracts,” Munroe said. “We're talking about what's going on in the (bus) yards when it comes to safety and human rights. ... Their concern is maintaining safety.”
South Carolina has the nation's only state-run bus fleet; it also is the oldest in the country. The state is responsible for bus maintenance except in Mount Pleasant, where it has pilot-tested a privatized bus-maintenance shop. Durham officials have said they don't allow unsafe buses to be used.
In Charleston County, Durham's contract to operate expires in June 2014. School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said the board hasn't talked about the company's future role in the district since the strike threat ended, but she expects that it will.
Carina Noble, a spokeswoman for Durham, said the company didn't have any information other than what the union provided in a press advisory. She said she couldn't comment further.
The panel will include Rep. Wendell Gilliard, D-Charleston, who also is a former president of the steelworkers union; Kenneth Riley, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO; Fred Feinstein, former counsel for the National Labor Relations Board; and Michael Wasser, a senior policy analyst with American Rights at Work.
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.