West Point bus strike on hold through Friday

October 15, 2009 9:56:00 AM

Garthia Elena Burnett -


Union officials have agreed to hold off on a bus driver strike -- which would include West Point School District drivers -- at least through Friday. 


But at the end of the business day Wednesday, Teamsters Local Union 2560 in Jackson and First Student, the company in charge of West Point School District''s transportation services, were no closer to reaching an agreement on salaries than they were Tuesday when district leaders were notified of a potential strike. 


"We''re not going to strike from now until Friday. But us and the company, we''re way far apart," said W. C. "Willie" Smith, Teamsters president and business manager for the Jackson chapter of the union, Wednesday afternoon. "They''re offering a bottle of water, and we want a gallon." 


"We are working closely with our partners in the Hinds County, Madison County, Yazoo and West Point districts to determine next steps in the case of an interruption in service. However, we are committed to resuming discussions and hope we can reach an agreement shortly," First Student Spokeswoman Maureen Richmond, said in an e-mail. 


Richmond has said the salary and benefits packages offered are of "fair market value." 


According to Smith, Teamsters has been working with the Cincinnati, Ohio-based First Student since this summer to negotiate a contract. 


Wages start at an average of $9.25 an hour, about $3 less than First Student workers in neighboring states and $1.75 less than First Student employees on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Smith noted in a press release. 


The company''s final offer was an increase in wages of 20 cents per hour with a four-hour guarantee, Smith reported. 


"That is an increase of 80 cents a day -- that will barely buy a bottle of water," Smith said in the release. "How are workers supposed to feed their families?" 


He also notes the drivers have no paid health insurance nor paid holidays, and have not had raises since August 2008. 


"The union has demanded a more than 21-percent increase over four years, with nearly half of the total being awarded in the first year," Richmond wrote in a company statement. 


A Tuesday offer included a bonus, which, Richmond said, was rejected by the union.  


"We value our drivers, bus attendants and employees in the community, and we recognize the excellent work they do in transporting children safely to and from school," she continued, also apologizing to area parents for any inconvenience the stalls in negotiations could cause. 


The union is asking for an increase of 80 cents an hour -- about $3.20 more each day, according to Smith. 


"These workers provide an important service by transporting the precious cargo of children safely to and from school each day," Smith said. "They should be compensated fairly for the hard work they do." 


WPSD has asked for advance notice if a strike is planned, so district leadership can inform parents. 


"We had originally stated that if we are given notice in ample time, we will do an announcement to the parents about this," said WPSD Assistant Superintendent Eluster Wicks. "We just need advance notice." 


In the event of a strike, parents will be responsible for getting their children to school. 


WPSD''s has a four-year contract with First Student; the district now is in its second school year with the company. 


Over past year, the school district has saved $200,000 on transportation services, including the cost of salaries, insurance and bus purchases, Wicks said. 


The district plans to continue to outsource transportation services and will advertise for bids once its contract with First Student is up. 


"Certainly, we will re-evaluate our contract," he said. "We would normally do this in any contract to determine whether or not we want to re-enter it." 


WPSD has a total enrollment of about 3,400 students, 70-80 percent of whom ride the school buses, said Wicks, who also noted there are 33 drivers each running separate routes daily. 


A strike could include about 330 drivers in Madison, Hinds and Yazoo counties, as well as West Point.