EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ School bus drivers in East Providence have voted in favor of going on strike ─ but only if negotiations with the bus company remain at a standstill.
Nick Williams, the business agent for Teamsters Local 251, tells Eyewitness News the bus drivers are currently at odds with Ocean State Transit, the company that oversees the city’s student transportation.
Williams said the drivers’, who also serve Barrington and some local charter schools, main concern is that they are being paid significantly less and receive fewer bonuses than their counterparts in neighboring communities. He also claims Ocean State Transit is not taking contract negotiations seriously enough.
“These are among the lowest-paid workers in the industry ─ in the state,” Teamsters Local 251 member Matthew Taibi said. “We’re looking to improve their lives and improve their family’s lives.”
The union and Ocean State Transit have been in federal mediation since summer 2019 and Williams said there’s been little to no progress since September.
“It would mean everything,” bus driver Brittany Smith tells Eyewitness News. “People could probably pay their bills easier, go grocery shopping… some of us are struggling to get by.”
In a statement to Eyewitness News, a spokesperson for Ocean State Transit said the company will continue to work with the union until a deal is reached.
“We have the utmost respect for the hard work and dedication of our East Providence drivers and monitors,” the spokesperson said. “We are scheduled to meet again with Teamsters Local 251 later this week and look forward to continuing to negotiate in good faith until we have a deal.”
Bus drivers and monitors held an informational picket outside East Providence City Hall ahead of Tuesday night’s school committee meeting. Williams said the goal of the picket was to tell the community where they stand and what they’re looking for.
“We are not in the imminent danger of a strike,” Williams said. “If it does get to that point, we will give plenty of notice and give everyone a chance to get a contingency plan.”
This isn’t the first time the union has hit a roadblock with contract negotiations in recent years.
In September 2018, more than 9,000 bus drivers in Providence – also part of Teamsters Local 251 – went on strike amid contract negotiations with First Student. The 11-day strike ended when the bus company agreed to contribute to the New England Teamsters Savings and Investment Plan.
The bus drivers in East Providence recently voted to join the union, and while they won’t be official members until after the contract is voted in, the union is still allowed to represent them.
Eyewitness News spoke to some bus drivers who attended the school committee meeting who voted against unionizing. Those bus drivers said they are worried about what’s next and feel members are being pressured to possibly go on strike.
Negotiations are scheduled to resume on Jan. 16. Williams said he hopes both sides can come to an agreement soon.