The full-page ad above appeared in Thursday's Seattle Times. First Student is the company that Seattle Public Schools contracts with to bus kids to school. Drivers for First Student are in the midst of contract negotiations with the company, which they say is refusing to offer them retirement benefits or health insurance that will cover their family members.
Addressed to Seattle Public Schools parents, the company's ad says they've made a "fair and equitable" offer that "a small minority of Local 174 members" rejected. The union says that's bullshit.
"That’s false," says Teamsters Local 174 spokesperson Jamie Fleming. "That’s just straight up not true."
Fleming says First Student made a contract offer that union leadership thought could win support from members. But union leaders later realized the health insurance offered in the deal wouldn't cover drivers' families. That, Fleming says, was a "deal breaker." In a vote of about 200 members (of the union’s total 400), 85 percent voted against the deal, according to Fleming.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that First Student is trying to turn the community against these bus drivers," Fleming says about the Seattle Times ad. "We’re hoping the community can see through what’s going on here. First Student made a proposal that wasn’t good enough. They need to make another one that’s better.”
In a statement, First Student says it offered "comprehensive health benefits for all drivers and committed to pay 80 percent of the cost.
Based on the monthly premium of $582, First Student would pay $466 and each employee would pay $116 – an annual benefit of more than $5,500 for each employee.
These benefits are in addition to a significant wage increase and cash stipend that union members ratified in August 2016:
• A wage increase of up to 20 percent with a top wage of more than $24 per hour.
• An annual cash stipend of up to $1,920 for each employee who chooses to not receive healthcare benefits.
Without coverage for family members, Fleming says, "it wasn’t enough." The union now says a longer strike may be imminent. Members have not yet decided when to strike.
Meanwhile, the 6,000-member Seattle Education Association, which represents public school teachers and staff, is considering a walkout in solidarity with the bus drivers if the drivers strike. Members are conducting a vote via paper ballots this week. The union will count ballots by Saturday. In order to not disrupt students' school day, teachers would walk out on a Wednesday afternoon, when school lets out early and teachers focus on professional development.
“The bus drivers are the first person our students see, so we consider them a part of the education process," says SEA President Phyllis Campano. "They absolutely deserve healthcare and retirement as we in the classroom deserve."