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Seattle School District bus drivers vote to authorize strike

Seattle School District bus drivers have authorized a strike over health insurance and other issues. (AP file)

Seattle school bus drivers say they are ready to strike after the company that contracts with the Seattle School District cut off contract talks with its “Last, Best and Final” contract offer.

“If you have children who ride the bus, you might want to start thinking about alternative arrangements,” says Michael Gonzales with Teamsters Local No. 174, which represents the approximately 450 drivers.

The drivers are employed by First Student, an Ohio-based company that contracts with the district to provide bus service.

The drivers became union members for the first time last June and have been negotiating with the company since then on an initial contract. They voted to authorize a strike after the company ended talks on February 7.

The biggest issue is health insurance. The company’s previous plan it offered drivers was canceled because it didn’t meet the minimal standards of the Affordable Care Act.

“To be honest, it was the worst I have ever seen,” Gonzales says.

The company has offered a new medical plan to the drivers. But the union says it is exorbitantly expensive, with the company offering to pay just 50 percent of the cost.

“Just for a single person, it would have been about 18 percent of their weekly take home,” Gonzalez says. “And then for a family plan it actually would have been 52 percent. So what they’re trying to do is drive those members away from company health care and drive them to the ACA and take those costs off the company,” Gonzales says.

The union also criticizes First Union for asking drivers to waive their rights under the city of Seattle’s sick-leave ordinance.

“We can obviously negotiate that but I don’t know why we would do that. They are based in the city of Seattle. Every other company in the city of Seattle lives under that ordinance unless there’s a collective bargained agreement. It’s pretty much unacceptable,” Gonzales says.

The median wage for drivers is approximately $17.45 an hour, and drivers average 30 hours per week, Gonzales says. And he says the company’s final offer fails to provide wage increases or bonuses to any but the drivers at the top of a 10-step pay scale.

Union negotiators and the company have tentatively scheduled another bargaining session for February 27.

While the drivers could strike at any time, the union is trying to give ample warning to families that would be affected by a walkout. Students are out of school this week for mid-winter break.

“We want to make sure that before any action is taken that the families of the Seattle School District is aptly notified so they can start making other arrangements ,” he says.

There’s some question whether a strike would actually impact students. First Student’s agreement with the district requires the company to provide replacement drivers in the event of a strike, according to a statement by the Seattle School District.

“Seattle Public Schools is in regular communication with First Student about the progress of the company’s labor negotiations with school bus drivers. We have not been notified that the Teamsters National has invoked a cooling-off period, which is the next step prior to any strike being called,” the statement said.

“In the event of a strike, our contract with First Student requires the company to provide replacement drivers to minimize the impact on the yellow bus transportation services that we provide to our nearly 28,000 students every day.”

First Student would not comment but did issue a brief statement Tuesday:

“First Student is continuing to negotiate in good faith with Teamsters Local #174. We are confident we will reach an agreement that is in the best interest of all parties. Our next negotiation meeting is set for February 27.”

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