Possible school bus driver strike looms over Seattle schools

First Student and Teamsters Union are still in negotiation

A labor dispute between the company providing school bus service for Seattle’s public schools and the drivers of those buses has multiple agencies preparing for what could be an lengthy strike.

The Teamsters Union Local 174 has rejected a benefits package from First Student, a national school transportation company with more than 50,500 employees. Of the 400 school bus drivers in Seattle employed by First Student, 85 percent rejected the company’s offer.

The union complaints include the package lacking affordable coverage for spouses or families and the lack of a pension in the offer.

Jamie Fleming, the union chapter’s director of communications, said the employees are still open to discussion before a protracted strike.

“There have been no official bargaining dates set yet,” she said. “The lines of communication are still open. We’ve passed a counter-offer back to First Student through our federal mediator.”

Although both sides are eager to avoid a strike, Fleming said the union voted to strike at any time, depending on First Student’s reaction. Union members said that the company promised to address healthcare and retirement last year.

First Student has claimed it offers competitive wages and benefits. 

As for Seattle Public Schools, parents are being urged to have an alternate way of getting to school. More than 12,000 students take yellow school buses run by First Student. The school district has contracted with that company and its 400 drivers.

Kim Schmanke, spokesperson for the school district, said everyone was hoping for a non-strike ending to the saga. The drivers held a one-day strike on Nov. 29, 2017 over the same issue.

“Right now, we don’t have a sense that a strike is imminent,” she said. “But we are waiting further information from First Student. As in November, the union said they would give us an 18-hour heads up if they do strike.”

Schmanke said that the one-day strike did have an impact, with absentee rates rising nominally. She said it was more inconvenient for parents and students than anything else, but a multiple-day, week or month strike would exacerbate those issues. Drivers picketed during the strike outside First Student’s two school bus depots in South Park and Lake City.

“We would be able to communicate to parents they need a backup plan to get to school,” she said. “We would not cancel school. We would not be compliant if we had to cancel because 12,000 students didn’t have a ride to school.”

On Seattle Public Schools’ website, a frequently asked questions section helps parents and students tackle some questions.

Under state law, a missed day because of a transportation strike is not considered an excused absence. Parents who cannot get their child to school are encouraged to contact the school. According to the district, “missed classwork, homework and tests may be made up per approval of the classroom teacher.” Any strike would impact all of First Student’s riders, including special education, field trips and sporting events.

Seattle Public Schools has said that charter buses will be hired to transport athletes, but not for field trips or for daily ridership to and from school.

Additionally, the district is required to offer 180 days of instruction, with inclement weather days being the only reasons to make up days at the end of the school year.

After school, younger students would be supervised until a family member or emergency contact can pick them up.