A group of bus drivers in the Gresham-Barlow School District are trying to organize a union.

The 20 bus drivers, all employees of First Student, the country's second-largest school bus services provider, say they hope to join the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 to 'improve safety and service conditions for students and parents.'

But first they have to persuade a majority of the district's 110 bus drivers that it's a good idea.

'These drivers are wanting to make improvements,' says an SEIU spokeswoman, who wishes to remain anonymous. 'They really want to be public about their organizing efforts … but they want to do so in an environment free from intimidation.'

First Student has caught flack for anti-union behavior before. In May of this year, bus drivers in Baltimore accused the company of distributing anti-union literature in the hopes of destroying the employees' efforts to organize with the Teamsters union.

The Gresham-Barlow bus drivers say they hope that doesn't happen here.

In a letter to First Student leaders of the group, Gresham bus drivers said they hope the company will comply with their right to organize.

' … we expect that our rights will be respected free from intimidation or coercion, interference of any kind on the part of supervisory staff and management,' the bus drivers wrote.

The SEIU representative said Gresham bus drivers tried to organize three years ago but were 'threatened with typical anti-union tactics.' In the end, the union vote failed 77-33.

First Student management denies that they are anti-union.

'We prefer to suggest that we are pro employee, not anti-union,' says Cal Hull, senior regional vice president of First Student's western United States region. 'We believe that employees are entitled to receive information about unions so they can make a solid decision.'

First Student management has already sent letters to Gresham school bus drivers talking about what it means to join a union. The letter does not urge employees to stop organizing, but does stress that signing a union card authorizes a union to 'speak on your behalf.' On the second page of the letter, the management says joining a union doesn't guarantee more pay and benefits.

'In the end, the package agreed to by First Student and the union might be better, worse, or the same as you currently receive,' the letter states.

Hull says his company doesn't discourage employees from organizing.

'We don't discipline or discharge people for their efforts to organize,' Hull says. 'We support employees rights to make that determination.'

A national organizing effort

First Student provides school bus services to about 15 Portland-area school districts, including the Gresham-Barlow and Oregon Trail districts in East County. Gresham-Barlow is the largest of First Student's Portland-metro districts, with 110 bus drivers.

Hull said drivers with the company's second-largest Portland area division, in the Tigard-Tualatin School District, also are organizing.

First Student contends that the organizers do not represent the majority of their drivers.

'There is a group that is trying to organize, but I don't think they represent the majority,' Hull said of the Gresham-Barlow bus drivers. 'When they tried before (in 2003) it was overwhelmingly rejected.'

There has been a new push to organize school bus drivers and three major unions, the Teamsters, SEIU and the Transport and General Workers Union, have formed a national campaign to organize the First Student drivers.

The unions call their campaign Driving Up Standards, and say First Student provides substandard working conditions for employees, including no paid sick leave, low wages and unaffordable health care.

The Gresham-Barlow bus drivers hope that, by forming a union, they can retain quality drivers and get better benefits and wages.

Hull admits that First Student has had trouble hiring enough drivers and that there is a shortage of bus drivers at the Gresham-Barlow location, but he says the shortage is cyclical.

'When the economy is robust, it's a little more difficult for us to find people,' Hull says.

First Student pays starting drivers $11 an hour and the average First Student driver makes between $12 and $14 an hour. All of the bus drivers are considered part-time employees and typically work a split shift of between four and six hours a day, or between 20 and 30 hours a week. Because the job is linked to the school year, the drivers are without work in the summer and during school breaks.

The bus drivers say forming a union will help.

'It is our opinion that, by raising standards for bus workers we will retain experienced and skilled drivers and make student transportation at Gresham-Barlow School District a thing of great pride,' they wrote in their letter to First Student managers.

The bus drivers will present their efforts to the Gresham-Barlow School Board at the board's regular meeting, which starts at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 2, in the Public Schools and Safety Building, 1331 N.W. Eastman Parkway, Gresham.

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