— By SALLY SEXTON
After months of negotiations between Weatherford bus drivers and monitors and Durham School Services, employees from the Weatherford branch took matters into their own hands Tuesday night, with 95 percent of workers voting to authorize a strike.
With the approval, the Weatherford group, which voted to unionize itself last May, now has the option to go on strike at any time.
“All we’re trying to do is address the inequities and to keep our good drivers. What we’ve asked for isn’t horrendous, they’re simple considerations,” driver Peggy Linden said. “We have no interest in destroying Durham or their reputation — that would be counterproductive.”
Contract negotiations between the two parties began in August, and a compromise looked promising, with Durham and Weatherford agreeing on about 45 of the 50 contract articles presented. But the discussions came to a stalemate when the topic of pay and days off were addressed, according to drivers.
“Anything to do with money, economics, guaranteed hours, that’s all been like pulling teeth,” Dan Linden said.
According to the Weatherford union’s last proposal, drivers had asked for a tiered pay scale, based on years of service, starting out at $11.25 an hour for drivers and $9.45 an hour for monitors. Drivers had also requested two paid holidays for the first year of service and two additional holidays after two years of service, as well as one paid day off given for perfect attendance.
“The union demands of a 15 percent wage increase, plus additional enhancements, continue to be completely unrealistic and leave us disappointed with recent progress,” Durham spokesperson Carina Noble said. “Durham School Services submitted its best and final offer to representatives from the Transport Workers Union on Feb. 11.
“This offer included an average wage increase of 2.5 percent for our employees, which is greater than that received by district employees.”
Pay raise has been a controversial topic for both parties, with Weatherford drivers arguing that they are underpaid compared to other districts.
“Durham needs to come to the table with a decent wage proposal for these employees who are severely underpaid compared to the state average,” TWU negotiator Steve Roberts said. “The average pay for a bus driver is $15 per hour in Texas, and as high as $18-$20 an hour in certain locations.
“Some of our Weatherford drivers are being paid $10 and change.”
Weatherford’s strike authorization vote comes on the heels of at least two other Durham branches that authorized a strike, including drivers in South Carolina and New York.
School bus employees from Poughkeepsie, N.Y. had voted to strike, but postponed the event after employees and Durham decided to continue negotiations on a new contract Feb. 12, according to the Poughkeepsie Journal.
“We were disappointed to hear, unofficially, that employees voted to authorize a strike. While this does not mean that they will strike, it gives them the option to do so at any point moving forward,” Noble said of the Weatherford union. “It is frustrating to watch the union use the intimidation of a work stoppage, which would greatly disrupt transportation for students in Weatherford, to try and gain leverage in reaching a deal.”
Weatherford employees feel that since a negotiation has not been reached and talks have ceased, they are running out of options.
“This is a show of support, like our vote to reject Durham’s final offer,” Lori Kitts said. “Our drivers are adamant that we don’t want to strike, but at the same time, we feel like our backs are against the wall.”
Moving forward, the Weatherford union says it will continue to try and educate the community until an agreement is reached, through public speaking engagements with the city and school district, as well as mailers and petitions.
“Everything we’re doing is to just try and get [Durham] back to the table,” Dan Linden said.