PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Parents and guardians across Providence had to pick their children up from school Thursday afternoon after the city’s 200 school bus drivers walked off the job.

Bus drivers took to picketing Thursday morning, leaving thousands of students without a ride to and from school.

The bus drivers’ union, Teamsters Local 251, and First Student, Inc. a private company that oversees the city’s bus operations, have been in an ongoing contract dispute over retirement benefits. The union is insistent that the drivers start earning a pension.

“We are out here fighting for working class families,” Matthew Maini, the union’s business agent-elect, said Thursday. “We feel that medical and pensions are a human right and that’s what we’re out here fighting for.”

In response, First Student is offering increases to the drivers’ 401(k) plans. The two sides have met nearly a dozen times since their contract expired in June. 

Bus drivers say they’re aware of the potential impact on students’ safety and the inconvenience to parents.

“It’s a sad thing because I’m a mom,” bus driver Sharon Ricci said. “Just be patient. Give us that chance to get where we belong and what we deserve and we’ll be back out here taking your kids to school like we always do.”

Both sides of the dispute told Eyewitness News they were still willing to go back to the table, but no further meetings were scheduled ahead of the strike.

The city of Providence was unable to find alternate transportation for its 9,000 students, instead asking parents to make other plans, and promising not to discipline students who are late or miss school because of the strike.

After several hours of negotiations on Wednesday evening, with a federal mediator, there was still no agreement. 

The announcement that the strike was official came from Nick Williams, the business agent for Teamsters Local 251, around 6 p.m. Wednesday, after an hours-long mediation session between the union and First Student did not yield an agreement.

Eyewitness News asked the union how long drivers plan to strike for, and we’re told as long as it takes.

“We’re out here in shifts and we’re going to be out here throughout the day throughout the night until we get it done to get a pension,” Miani said. “We are fighting for a defined pension where the employer contributes on their behalf for every hour worked up to 40 hours and that is what we believe in as Teamsters.”

The school district tweeted Thursday afternoon saying they expect the union to continue their strike on Friday, and warned parents of early dismissals across the district.

A spokesperson for Providence Public Schools said attendance was at 84% Thursday, with the largest decrease in attendance occurring at the middle school level.

While many parents were inconvenienced by the strike, Providence Public Schools Superintendent Christopher Maher commended them in making accommodations to transport children to and from school.

“Despite the difficulties presented by a bus driver strike, our community pulled together today to help ensure the safety and continuing education of our children,” Maher said in a statement.

Nancy Krause, Steph Machado, Sarah Doiron, Shaun Towne, Kait Walsh, Shiina LoSciuto and Jessica Pace contributed to this report.