Laidlaw bus operators closer to strike

Bus operators for the Portland School District voted Jan. 25 to reject a contract proposal by Canadian-owned Laidlaw Inc. and at the same time authorized a strike if a new deal isn't reached soon.

The vote by members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 was 118-2 against the contract and 111-8 to strike. There are 200 persons in the bargaining unit.

Laidlaw Inc. contracts with Portland School District No. 1 to provide bus service for more than 6,000 elementary and middle school students.

Laidlaw offered wage increases of about 1.3 percent (roughly 20 cents an hour) over five years and insisted on implementing co-payments for health insurance premiums.

According to Local 757, the company currently pays premiums for drivers after five years on the job. But starting in 2000 it intends to pay only the first 5 percent of any premium increases, which are expected to be in the double-digits.

"The offer is a cruel joke," said Ron Heintzman, president and business representative of Local 757. "The employees would be giving away much more than they would receive if they accepted this offer."

Starting pay for Portland School District bus operators is $8.50 an hour and tops out at $11.

The union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint charging Laidlaw with surface bargaining.

A similar story unfolded last year in Corvallis, where Local 757 has been dealing with the multi-billion-dollar Laidlaw Inc. on a first-time union contract for 52 school bus and city bus operators and maintenance workers.

Laidlaw has contracts to provide those services in Corvallis.

The drivers have twice rejected contract proposals and have also authorized a strike. Issues are similar in both negotiations, although Corvallis drivers make much less in wages. Starting pay is only $6.95 an hour and tops out at $10.70 - but to reach the top wage employees must have 21 years with the company.

Local 757 is mobilizing with community and religious groups in the Willamette Valley to bring pressure on the Corvallis City Council and school board to look at their contracts with Laidlaw. The union and its allies have planned a neighborhood "walk and talk" Saturday, Feb. 6, to build support for a potential strike.

"This is a company that pays many of its full-time employees so little that they're still eligible for food stamps and public housing," Heintzman said. "You have to be with the company for 21 years to even come close to making a livable wage."

Local 757 is planning more neighborhood leafleting as well as a strong presence at school board and city council meetings. Its goal is to get Laidlaw back to the bargaining table. If Laidlaw refuses, the union will ask city officials to take the dispute to binding arbitration. Failing that, the union will ask the city and school district to cancel their contracts with Laidlaw and take their operations in-house.

"It's in their contracts with Laidlaw," Heintzman said at a Corvallis press conference Jan. 27. "Our only other option is to strike, which will cause a major disruption in service."

Thus far, Laidlaw has not responded publicly to the union's charges that it can afford to pay its drivers above poverty wages.

At the press conference, union attorney Susan Stoner said Laidlaw spends $440,000 to run city and school buses. She had invoices showing the school district and city pay about $1.7 million for the service.

Laidlaw criticized the union's numbers, but refused to offer any figures of its own. Bill Schilling, Laidlaw's vice president of human relations in Burlington, Ontario, told the Corvallis Gazette-Times, "They can claim whatever they want, but they won't get any official response from Laidlaw."

Heintzman understands why. "They don't dare release their actual numbers to the press," he said. "If I were making that much profit I wouldn't want anyone to know either."

In Portland, the union has been negotiating for a new contract since April. According to Heintzman, Laidlaw has rigidly refused to modify its proposal - or in other words - is not bargaining in good faith.

A recent audit authorized by the Portland School Board by the accounting firm of KPMG Peat Marwick found that the school district may be overpaying Laidlaw by as much as $3 million for service it could provide in house.

February 5, 1999 issue

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