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In standoff with First Student, Providence bus drivers held out for better pay – and got it

Providence Journal 3/9/2023 Amy Russo, The Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE – Negotiations had dragged on since August, the school bus company had tendered its "last and best offer" almost two weeks ago and the drivers' union had authorized a strike.

And so when the proposed contract between First Student and Teamsters Local 251 came to a vote last weekend, the drivers gave it a resounding thumbs-down. A strike loomed, and it looked like the only question was when, not if. On Monday, the union bought some time, pushing a possible walkout 48 hours down the clock.

By Tuesday night, the Teamsters had coaxed a better deal from First Student and ratified the contract in an eleventh-hour vote, averting a walkout that would have begun Wednesday morning and was expected to create, once again, a nightmare for the city's public-school students and their parents.

What changed? Drivers' top wages will rise from $28 an hour to $37 an hour by June 2026 – a year ahead of the company's final offer – and First Student will double its contribution to the Teamsters Savings and Investment Plan, the closest thing to the pensions drivers want that the company has been willing to entertain. What has been $1 in employer-provided retirement savings for every hour worked will now be $2 an hour. And the company's health care coverage will also get a boost, to 92.5%.

On Monday, those concessions were not even in the room, let alone on the table. In First Student's final offer, warning drivers in all-caps text that there is "NO MORE NEGOTIATING" and "DON'T BE LEFT EMPTY HANDED," the company proposed two options: a five-year contact boosting top wages to $37 an hour by June 2027 or a four-year option boosting top wages to $35.30 an hour by June 2026. The latter had already been proposed and was still on the table.

"Either proposal makes you the highest paid drivers in the region and the proposed pay scale will remain in place until the next [collective bargaining agreement] is negotiated and ratified," the proposal read.

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What's in the new agreement?

Teamsters Eastern Region Vice President Matt Taibi, Local 251's secretary and treasurer, said the union ratified the four-year agreement – after negotiating the top rate for drivers up to $37 per hour by June 2026.

Taibi previously said he was concerned that the lower pay raise would take effect right as the contract runs out, possibly leaving the union without much room to ask for yet another raise in the next contract.

In a statement after the vote, First Student spokesman Frank McMahon said the agreement is fair to drivers and the company.

"Our priority has always been to reach an agreement that provides drivers with fair compensation and benefits while also guaranteeing safe and reliable transportation for Providence students," McMahon said. "We are pleased to have reached a new contract agreement with Teamsters Local 251."  

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Contingency plan for major disruptions was in place

Hours before the union and bus company found middle ground on Tuesday, Superintendent Javier Montañez sent a letter to parents cautioning that "there are no adequate substitute transportation companies" that were willing and able to serve the district.

"This means that we will be relying on families to arrange for their own transportation for their children," Montañez said. "We understand that this represents a hardship for many of you, and we wish another viable solution existed."

It was not immediately clear whether the district had considered allowing children to attend classes remotely.

To aid parents, the district offered mileage and taxi reimbursements and a flexible policy on absences and tardiness.

Had there been a strike, PPSD said field trips requiring buses would have been canceled as well as middle school sports. High schoolers involved in sports and any students in after school programs could have also been impacted.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: In standoff with First Student, Providence bus drivers held out for better pay – and got it

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