Providence school bus drivers mull strike over contract dispute

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The union that represents approximately 200 school bus drivers in the city of Providence voted last week to authorize a strike, setting up a showdown with the private company that oversees bus operations just days before school begins.

Matt Taibi, the secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 251, confirmed Tuesday that a strike authorization vote occurred, but said he’s hopeful a dispute with Ohio-based First Student, Inc. can be resolved before the union calls for an actual work stoppage.

Taibi said the dispute revolves primarily around the union’s attempt to secure pensions for its drivers rather than keeping them in the current 401(k) system. Bus drivers are not city employees.

He claimed First Student has exercised its right to call for a 21-day “cooling off period,” which would prohibit a strike for at least three weeks. But Frank McMahon, a spokesperson for the company, said the 21-day clause has not been invoked.

A strike would likely result in a significant disruption to city schools, as more than 9,000 students ride the bus each day. Laura Hart, a spokesperson for Providence schools, said the district is aware of the dispute, but it doesn’t appear it will be affect students during the first several weeks of classes.The first day of school in Providence is Sept. 4.

“We strongly urge both sides to come to an agreement during this period and are hopeful that school transportation will not be disrupted,” Hart said. “However, out of an abundance of caution, our team is working with the mayor’s office, public safety, Public Safety, the R.I. Department of Education and RIPTA among other community partners on contingency planning. We will update the community as more information becomes available.”

Providence pays First Student more than $12 million a year to oversee bus operations for the district. The city renewed its contract with the company in 2015 and is in the process of considering an extension of the deal.

McMahon said the union has been presented with a “comprehensive proposal that includes increased wages for all employees and increased 401(k) retirement plan contributions.” He said the union is insisting that bus drivers join the New England Teamsters & Trucking Industry Pension Fund.

“The fund is currently underfunded by $3.6 billion, and its liabilities have increased by $700 million in just the last two years,” McMahon said.  “The U.S. Treasury Department classifies the plan as ‘critical and declining’ due to its serious underfunding. No First Student employees participate in this underfunded plan and the Teamsters’ negotiating tactic is a desperate attempt for new pension funding.”

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Dan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan

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