The high cost of health insurance promises to be a major rallying cry for union supporters as well. Many bus drivers maintain that the health plan offered by First Student is unaffordable. Ellenbaum says that he pays about $40 a week for his health insurance, while workers with family members on their plans can find themselves paying more than $600 a month. Joe Dixon, another driver, says that he couldn't afford to keep working at First Student if he didn't get insurance through the Veterans' Administration. "If I had to pay for health insurance I wouldn't be working there," he says.
Pearson maintains that First Student has been more than generous since taking over. He notes that 50-cent raises have been given each of the past two summers. During the same period, the company has increased its share of health insurance from between 30 and 35 percent of coverage for a single adult, to anywhere between 55 and 70 percent. "It's the best part-time job in town as far as pay and benefits," he argues.
First Student is facing pressure from labor unions in other parts of the nation as well. Earlier this month school-bus drivers in Chicago and Waukegan, Illinois, agreed to their first contract with the company since signing on with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union. Under the agreement workers will get a total pay hike of 19 to 21 percent over the next three years. For the first time, employees will also receive paid time off for emergencies such as funerals and illnesses. "This never would have happened if the employees hadn't stood up to the employer and decided that enough was enough and voted for the union," says Henry Bayer, executive director of the Illinois union.
To ensure that they don't suffer the same fate in the Twin Cities, First Student has begun holding mandatory, paid meetings at their nine local terminals, where bus drivers are informed why a union would be bad for them. Pearson also sent a letter to workers charging that employees would have contributed $899,000 to the union's coffers in the last two years if they opted to join, and warning that Local 284 is simply using them to generate revenue. Hagglund, the organizing director, calls the $899,000 amount "a totally arbitrary figure that they came up with God knows how."
Hagglund and other workers also charge that the company continues to violate labor laws by threatening to cut jobs and benefits if the union prevails next month. Specifically, they say, First Student has warned that bus drivers may no longer be able to bring their kids to work--a vital benefit for single parents. "They are already giving workers a lot of misinformation, doing a lot to intimidate and scare them," Hagglund claims.
Pearson denies that any specific threats have been made but warns that if a union is adopted there is no guarantee that existing benefits will remain: "We're just saying that if we start bargaining then everything is on the table. The union can't promise what they'll have in a contract and we can't either. Everything is negotiable."