Strike looming after contract with Warwick school bus drivers rejected

West Bay

WARWICK, R.I (WPRI) — Although both the First Student bus company and drivers union agreed to continue busing service through Friday, the beginning of next week for Warwick Public Schools could be different.

Thursday night, drivers union ATU Local 618, and First Student failed to reach an agreement on a new contract.

In a statement to 12 News, a spokesperson for First Student says they are disappointed that the drivers union once again voted down what they say is a “generous contract offer.” This vote came after 17 negotiating sessions with union leadership since April.

First Student said the contract offered drivers contained a package of benefit improvements and wage increases. According to the bus company, they had reached a tentative agreement with the union, but it was ultimately rejected.

“We understand that even one day without yellow bus transportation is a hardship for the families, students and schools that depend on us. It is unfortunate that Local 618 continues to be willing to hold the transportation of thousands of Warwick students hostage as a negotiating tactic.”

The bus company ended their statement saying they stand ready and are willing to begin negotiations any time to avoid further disruption to Warwick Public Schools.

Some good news for parents relying on the bus to get their kids to school is that Monday is a professional development day in the district, which buys the union and bus company extra time to potentially resume negotiations.

“If the buses do not run on Tuesday, we have to plan for more traffic and going to the school dropping off and picking up from the end of the day, so we’ll have to work with the principals in developing safe routes for parents to arrive at the school and depart from school,” Warwick superintendent Lynn Dambruch told 12 News.

“It’s very frustrating because again, this is between First Student and the union and their employees, so we’re stuck in the middle of a situation, and we have no seat at the table,” she added.

On an already congested road outside Warwick Veterans Middle School, even children who don’t use the bus system could still be impacted.

“It’s already hard to get in and out,” grandmother Michelle Cook said.

“I work from home, but if I wasn’t to, it’s a lot to pick your kids up,” mother Trisha Maia said.

Last week, union members voted in favor of going on strike if an agreement could not be reached. A union representative told 12 News that it typically takes about two weeks to prepare for a strike because it has to be approved by national leadership.

Union secretary treasurer Steve Sousa told 12 News over the phone while the union is trying to avoid a strike, he could not confirm when or if one would occur, and while there have been some good tentative agreements, both sides are “still not there.”

On October 1st, parents had to drive their kids to school after what was called a “union labor issue” that prevented the bus drivers from picking up students. Two weeks later, parents were warned of another possible work stoppage, but ultimately, an extension was signed by the union so services would not be interrupted.

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