City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake stood with Baltimore school bus drivers, aides and mechanics yesterday as they demanded that the school system guarantee their jobs as it switches to a new bus contractor.
The Teamsters union, which represents the workers, wants the system to require all bus companies applying for the contract to rehire the employees of the previous contractor, First Student.
The system has balked at the proposal, saying it can't require a new contractor to lay off its employees to hire another one's workers.
System officials also say they are concerned by an increasing absentee rate among the First Student drivers. Still, system leaders say, any new contractor will probably need to hire many of First Student's 300 Baltimore employees because there is a national shortage of school bus drivers and bus aides for special-education students.
First Student, based in Cincinnati, is the nation's second-largest school bus company and has bid to acquire the nation's largest company, Laidlaw.
Its Baltimore employees voted last year to join the Teamsters union, which is waging a national campaign to unionize First Student workers. Teamsters leaders say First Student does not treat its workers fairly or invest enough money in the maintenance of its buses, creating safety hazards for drivers and children alike.
After the Baltimore vote to unionize, the Teamsters and First Student entered into contract negotiations. The sticking point was health benefits, which the workers pay for. In December, First Student responded by pulling out of a new five-year, $29 million contract with the city schools that was to go into effect this summer.
First Student will complete its contract for this school year, which is worth $5.7 million. A First Student spokeswoman declined to comment yesterday except to say that the company is focused on ensuring the safety of the students it transports.
About 7,000 of the city's 83,000 students ride the traditional yellow buses to school each day, two-thirds of them special-education students. Some of the buses have aides to supervise disabled children during the ride. The city school system contracts with several bus companies, and the First Student contract is the largest.
Amid the turmoil, the system is struggling to attract bus companies to apply for all 100 routes that First Student will leave behind. Companies whose workers are not unionized have been particularly wary. The system has revised its description of the work to offer more money.
Yesterday morning, Rawlings-Blake joined about 60 workers and Teamsters officials on the lawn outside First Student's bus yard in Rosedale at a rally in support of their job security.
"You have stood behind our children and done the work too many of us take for granted, so I'm proud to stand behind you today," the City Council president said.
Wearing T-shirts that read "The Wheels On The Bus Go Union Now," the workers fired up a grill to make hamburgers and hotdogs. (For bus drivers who start work before dawn, 10 a.m. is lunchtime.) They spoke of their attachment to the children they serve and of their fear of losing their jobs.
"We have families and homes and bills that we need to pay, and we'd like to know where our future lies," said Mark Domfort, a bus mechanic.
Rawlings-Blake and Mayor Sheila Dixon have written letters to school system officials urging them to include a worker-retention clause in their request for bids from new bus companies.
The system issued a statement yesterday saying that its request for bids has been issued and cannot be amended. The statement says the system is "interested in keeping the current First Student workers" but is "very concerned" about increasing absenteeism among First Student drivers.
During the first year and a half of First Student's contract, an average of eight drivers a day were absent, according to school system figures. From last school year until last month, the average was 15 a day. In the past few weeks, more than 20 drivers a day have been absent.
Vanessa Pyatt, a school system spokesman, said the system scrambles to find a substitute when a driver is absent, but sometimes students need to get last-minute rides from family members. If they don't get to school at all, the system can be subject to state fines.
Trouble with bus transportation was an issue two years ago, when a federal judge in a long-running special-education lawsuit held the school system in contempt for failing to give special-education students the services to which they are legally entitled. One factor contributing to the problem was that students weren't getting to school.
Sean Cedenio, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 570, which represents the Baltimore First Student workers, said he hadn't seen the recent absenteeism rates but that some drivers might have been out looking for other jobs.
"I'm sure people are looking for work," he said. "They need job security."
He also said that First Student has traditionally had trouble keeping all of its driving positions filled.
Around the country, about 2,000 First Student drivers in about a dozen school districts have joined the Teamsters in the past eight months, said Kim Keller, director of the Teamsters national school bus campaign. The union has been working with the employees to spotlight safety issues including defective front wheels, leaky roofs and broken speedometers.
First Student says it has spent nearly $350 million on new school buses in the past five years.
The workers plan to continue their lobbying at a school board meeting tonight.