Labor Drive

Bus driver Lindy Ellenbaum hopes a union will bring higher wages
Craig Lassig

Management at Ryder Student Transportation Services just wanted to provide a couple of their hard-working employees with a trip to Disney World. Or so they claimed.

On May 24, 1999, just two days before the company's 1,690 school-bus workers were to decide whether to join Service Employees International Union Local 284, they were mailed a letter from Ryder management informing them of a raffle. The hook seemed harmless enough: If at least 1,450 employees cast ballots in the two-day election, the company would show their appreciation by giving away a set of "Disney World vacation getaways"--including airfare, three nights' lodging, and $250 in walking-around money for two couples. Winners could also opt for a cash prize worth $1,000.

In addition to the home mailing, Ryder put up posters in its Twin Cities bus terminals alerting drivers to the raffle. "No matter how you choose to vote, we will have the drawing," the signs promised. Next to some of those posters, however, there was another placard that proclaimed Ryder's position on the upcoming election in six unambiguous, bold letters: "Vote No."

Over the two-day election, 1,436 employees cast ballots, voting down the union by a margin of 59 votes (49 contested votes were left uncounted). Despite falling just short of Ryder's voter-turnout goal, the company--perhaps giddy from victory--held the raffle anyway. Two workers got to take a guest to Disney World.

Local 284 did not share the company's enthusiasm. Members immediately cried foul and petitioned the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency charged with enforcing labor laws and mediating disputes between unions and employers. Believing that the raffle unduly influenced the election, they argued the NLRB should nullify the election's results. Shelly Hagglund, Local 284's organizing director, argues that Ryder may have publicly stated the outcome of the raffle was not contingent on how an employee voted, but some people assumed otherwise. "It's kinda like the Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes," Hagglund reasons. "You feel like you have to buy the magazines to be in the winning pool."

In October 1999 the NLRB ruled in the union's favor, finding that "such a substantial prize inherently induces voters to support the employer's position." The company appealed the decision. Finally, almost two years after the election, the NLRB upheld its earlier ruling and ordered a new election. On April 18 and 19 the 1,500-plus drivers will once again decide whether or not to unionize.

In the interim, management has changed. Last July Ryder was purchased for $940 million by FirstGroup, a British transportation conglomerate that just recently became the second largest private provider of school-bus services in the United States. According to its most recent financial report, the company's transportation division--known as First Student--carries 750,000 students to 500 schools in 27 states every school day. In total, FirstGroup had profits of 94.2 million pounds, or $135 million, during a six-month period ending September 30, 1999.

Jeff Pearson, a vice president with First Student, estimates that 40 percent of the company's employees were hired since the sale, which came just two months after the initial union drive. He notes that it's a constant struggle to retain workers in part-time, seasonal jobs when the unemployment rate continues to hover around three percent. "We are recruiting constantly to keep our routes full," Pearson says.

The employees' lack of familiarity with management may be a blessing for First Student. In addition to the raffle debacle, Ryder accumulated a host of labor-law violations during the last union drive. In a separate ruling on January 12, the NLRB took Ryder to task for attempting to prohibit workers from distributing literature in the workplace, a violation of the National Labor Relations Act. The NLRB also concluded that management at Ryder had violated federal labor law when they told employees that there would be no attempt to bargain in good faith with Local 284. As punishment the NLRB mandated that the company cease these activities, as well as post a notice in "conspicuous" parts of the workplace acknowledging that it had violated the National Labor Relations Act and that workers have every right to form a union.

Vice president Pearson concedes that mistakes were made in the past, but he claims times have changed: "I wasn't here and half of my managers weren't here at the time. Since then we've done our homework and gotten much more educated on what we can and can't do and what the union can and can't do."

For pro-union workers, the primary reason for organizing has to do with wages and benefits, or the lack thereof. Hourly wages at the company run from $11.50 to $14 an hour. And it takes ten years to reach the top tier. Bambi Barclay, a 16-year veteran bus driver and union supporter, says that this is the main reason that First Student is constantly losing workers. "Who are they going to get to work for what they pay us?" Barclay asks rhetorically. "I mean, they pay a dollar less at Taco Bell."

Lindy Ellenbaum, a bus driver for five years and active union organizer, notes that his wages are ultimately paid by the taxpayers. And he wonders out loud about people's priorities. "You pay the postman or the UPS man $25 to deliver your package. But you don't want to pay us much more than the minimum wage to deliver your kids?" he chafes. "We need to be valued a little bit more."

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."

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