West Hartford School Bus Drivers Hold 'Informational Picket' to Highlight Labor Dispute

Union management says they are prepared to set a strike deadline if Friday's scheduled negotiations with First Student are not productive.

A crowd of approximately 75 First Student Inc. bus drivers and monitors held an "informational picket" Thursday morning in front of the First Student bus yard on Oakwood Ave. in West Hartford.

Chanting "What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!" the union members hope to draw attention to their ongoing labor dispute with First Student Inc.

On in favor of striking if agreement cannot be reached with First Student. The first set of negotiations since that vote are scheduled to take place on Friday between First Student Inc. and CSEA SEIU Local 2001 which represents the approximately 110 drivers and monitors who handle West Hartford's school bus routes.

CSEA Communications Director Ben Phillips is hopeful that First Student will come to the table ready to negotiate and take note of union members' concerns. "I hope when we go into negotiations tomorrow they will have gotten the message," he said.

Union organizer Kevin Mercik said he hopes First Student "will make us a real offer."

Both Phillips and Mercik highlight respect and fair wages, health insurance, and safety as chief concerns of the drivers and monitors.

According to Phillips, First Student's method of calculating time worked sometimes "shorts" drivers by as many as two hours per week. In addition, Phillips said, an increase in the fees paid by West Hartford to First Student has not been passed along to drivers in the form of a wage increase.

Insurance is also a key bargaining issue. "First Student makes no contribution to health insurance and our goal is to have affordable insurance," said Mercik. The union's current proposal is to have First Student provide single coverage free of charge to the drivers. "We need progress," he said.

Safety concerns arise from pressure on scheduling on the part of First Student, said Mercik. "A lot of drivers feel they're not given the time to do a full inspection," said Mercik. He also indicated that the same problems with buses keep cropping up. "There are continued complaints about non-functioning radios, and we view those as safety issues," he said.

Maureen Richmond, spokesperson and director of media relations for First Student Inc., said the company is scheduled to continue negotiations with the union on Friday. "We are looking forward to it. There is no indication of interruption of service," she said.

"This is a labor management issue between the bus drivers and First Student," said West Hartford Assistant Superintendent for Administration Tom Moore, who manages the contract between West Hartford Public Schools and First Student Inc.

"The buses continue to run on time, and this should have no impact on our school day," Moore said.

Mercik said the union hopes to avoid a strike but will set a strike deadline if necessary. "We don't want to, but we will if we have to. It's really up to First Student."

"We're going to make an assessment after negotiations tomorrow," Mercik said.


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