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Published in Print: April 10, 2002, as Laidlaw Bus Drivers in Los Angeles Go on Strike

Laidlaw Bus Drivers in Los Angeles Go on Strike

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A strike by school bus drivers that delayed the arrival of thousands of Los Angeles students at school early last week was still causing transportation troubles for the nation's second-largest district at week's end.

More than 800 drivers for Laidlaw Education Services, the district's largest school transportation contractor, went on strike April 2. The drivers, members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, were protesting wages that they say are below the national average and aren't competitive with those of their counterparts who work directly for the school system.

Both sides in the dispute met with a federal mediator last week.

The Laidlaw drivers are responsible for busing 18,000 students daily in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The strike, however, also affected bus service for the 52,000 students transported by the district's in-house bus department because their drivers were trying to cover the strikers' routes.

Although school bus drivers in Los Angeles have staged "sickouts" in the past, the strike is believed to be the first action of its kind in the district in at least 30 years, said Cricket Bauer, a district spokeswoman.

National school transportation association officials added that such strikes are rare because most school bus drivers aren't union members, and some state laws prohibit work stoppages by public school employees.

Don Owens, a spokesman the Washington- based Teamsters, added that the union has contracts with Laidlaw in several cities, but has never had poor labor relations with the company apart from the current dispute.

Forced Into Duty

As the work stoppage continued throughout the week, the 737,000-student district's reorganized bus system was averaging hourlong delays for some students. The transportation shuffle was costing the district about $195,000 a day, or roughly $5,000 a day less than its Laidlaw contract.

The school system has stopped paying Laidlaw during the strike, Ms. Bauer said.

To cope with the driver shortage—which involves almost half of Los Angeles' force of school bus drivers—about 100 district bus supervisors left their offices for the road. The district has its own corps of drivers—roughly 1,100—and many of them were working overtime as well to pick up the strikers' students. The district contracts other private transportation companies as well.

While up to 25 Laidlaw supervisors were busing students daily in addition to the district supervisors, the school system remained almost 600 drivers short. To lighten the busload, some field trips, athletic events, and after-school activities were canceled or postponed.

Still, Ms. Bauer stressed: "Everyone is getting to school; it just may be a little late."

Wages are at the heart of the impasse. The district pays its drivers between $13.75 and approximately $24 an hour. According to the union, Laidlaw drivers in Los Angeles earn hourly wages that range from $8.50 to $14.

Teamsters Union Local 572, which represents the striking drivers, has been negotiating with the company since the contract expired in August.

Mr. Owens, who is in Los Angeles working with Local 572, said the workers want a three-year contract with a 5 percent annual pay hike. Laidlaw, he said, was offering a four-year contract with a 1.8 percent pay increase in the first two years and 2 percent the final two years.

"We're talking about a living wage," Mr. Owens said.

But Jim Ferraro, a vice president of Laidlaw Education Services, said that the company pays competitive wages. The Naperville, Ill.- based company is North America's largest private contractor of student transportation.

Bus-driver recruitment and retention are the top challenges facing school districts and bus contractors nationwide, said Michael J. Martin, the executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation in Albany, N.Y., a nonprofit membership organization for pupil-transportation officials.

Nationally, he said, school bus drivers' hourly wages range from $7.75 to $25 in large cities. Of the 500,000 school bus drivers nationwide, about 40 percent work for private companies, he added.

Whether bus drivers work for private contractors or public school districts has little bearing on their earnings, according to Robin Leeds, the executive director of the Connecticut School Transportation Association in Newington, Conn. Ms. Leeds is the regulatory liaison for the National School Transportation Association, an Alexandria, Va.-based group that represents private school-bus contractors.

In most cases, she said, wages vary depending on the size of the transportation fleet and the local market. She said the average national hourly wage for a school bus driver is $11.29.

Vol. 21, Issue 30, Page 3

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