Providence bus drivers vote down contract, may strike

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first student bus providence schools

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The union representing nearly 100 Providence bus drivers overwhelmingly voted down a new contract offer from the private company that oversees student transportation in the city Thursday night, raising the possibility that it could strike in the coming weeks.   

Nick Williams, the business agent for Teamster Local 251, said the drivers voted 78-2 against the contract put forward by First Student Inc., the Oho-based company that has managed city bus operations for many years. Williams said the union voted 78-2 in favor of a separate contract, but did not provide details on the proposal.

“All the company has to do is agree to the pre-ratified offer, and a strike is averted,” he said.

The union has been threatening to strike for weeks as it seeks to add bus drivers to the Teamsters’ regional pension system, which First Student has criticized as an attempt to add new employees to a struggling retirement fund.

In a flier First Student provided to bus drivers, the company claimed its offer would provide pay raises, increase 401(k) contributions each year, pay 80% of medical premiums and increase sick time beyond what is required by state law. The flier warned drivers that the Teamsters’ pension fund may be insolvent within 10 years.

“Unfortunately, Teamster Local 251 leadership continues to insist that our Providence employees be forced to join the New England Teamsters & Trucking Industry Pension Fund, which is currently underfunded by $3.6 billion with liabilities that have increased by $700 million in just the last two years,” Frank McMahon said in a statement. “The fund has been classified by the U.S. Treasury Department as being in ‘critical and declining’ status due to its serious underfunding.  No First Student employee has ever participated in this underfunded plan and it is transparently obvious that the Teamsters negotiating demand is a desperate attempt to obtain new pension funding.”

The union and the company are still in a 21-day “cooling off period,” so the drivers are not immediately eligible to strike. It was not immediately clear when a strike could happen.

Providence school officials have urged to two sides to reach an agreement, but they have not weighed in on the merits of the company’s proposal versus what the union is seeking. A spokesperson has said the city is working on “contingency planning” in case a strike occurs.   

“We certainly understand that even one day without yellow bus transportation is a hardship for the families, students and schools that depend on us,’ McMahon said. “First Student remains committed to serving the Providence Public School District, and we stand ready to continue negotiations with Teamsters Local 251 representatives to avoid any disruption to student transportation service.”

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

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