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Unlikely Labor Leader Behind the Wheel

Union organizer and Laguna Beach bus driver Gina Beck made a detour to the White House this week. Photo by Andrea Adelson

Gina Beck, a school bus driver in Laguna Beach, skipped work earlier this week to participate in a White House event held in remembrance of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that also recognized women’s roles in the labor movement.

“They treat you like a rock star; it was really cool,” said Beck, 41, of Whittier, who met Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the president and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. The forum highlighted women from 10 labor unions who told about their personal journeys and commitment to the union movement.

Beck, a three-year employee of Durham School Services, was among several leaders at the company’s yards in Laguna, Irvine, and Santa Ana who campaigned to organize their workplace. Durham, based in Warrenville, Ill., unsuccessfully contested the proposed union before a national labor board last October. And despite an anti-union backlash against collective bargaining in cash-strapped states such as Ohio and Wisconsin, Durham’s local drivers on March 4 voted 221-54 to join Teamsters Local 952, according to Patrick Kelly, secretary-treasurer of the union in Orange, which has 9,000 members.

Nationally, there are 19 other Durham yards represented by Teamsters, including one in San Bernardino, said Kim Keller, deputy director of the Teamsters organizing department, who is focusing on the nation’s 19,800 school-bus drivers, about a third of whom are represented by various unions. Most school bus drivers were district employees and enjoyed their benefits, such as paid sick days, paid holidays and medical insurance. “As more and more have been privatized, it’s occurred on the backs of their workers,” said Keller, who suggested the trend is reversing. “Standards got to a point where workers said we can’t permit this trend to continue, she said.

“We’re trying to elevate and improve working conditions and wages,” said Kelly, who expects to begin contract negotiations locally with Durham this month. If a contract isn’t reached within a year, Durham could move to decertify the vote, he said.

Officials of Durham, the country’s third-largest school bus company in 1999 when it was acquired by National Express Group PLC, did not return calls seeking comment.

The student-driving bus crew at Durham’s Laguna yard.

Laguna’s school district will pay Durham $1.5 million this school year for its services, a contract increase of 1.9 percent based on the CPI, said Dean West, director of fiscal services. From a district-owned bus yard, Durham’s 11 drivers provide twice daily transportation for about 900 students in kindergarten through eighth-grade along 11 routes as well as specialized trips for 28 special-needs pupils, he said. That amounts to a daily per bus rate of $262.44 for the first four hours of service. Though students pay an annual $286 bus fee, the district for the first time is underwriting a majority of transportation costs due to a $311,235 cut in state funding, West said.

“I became an organizer because we want to lead a decent life, get decent pay, insurance,” said Beck, whose part-time wages of $14.10 an hour have not increased in three years. Currently, she works two, two-hour routes daily split by five hours of idle time, a condition prevalent in the transit industry where paid hours are concentrated around peak commute periods, according to Kelly.

Beck, who journeyed to Washington at the Teamsters’ expense, was selected because her story is representative of the working poor, Kelly said.

Since working for Durham, she lost an apartment, was living in a mobile home without running water and has difficulty paying her bills on time. Despite asking for forbearance on her bill, the electric company has threatened to cut off her power. She and others in the Laguna yard are regulars at the food bank in Laguna Canyon, a blessing she fully appreciates.

“That’s a sad commentary on the value people put on education,” said Kelly, pointing out what he sees as the consequence of privatizing school-district services. Local school authorities may be unaware of the deficiencies in the support system they rely on, he said.

Beck’s father was a Teamster, who worked for a security firm, ADT. Her brother also is a Teamster who works for Verizon. “I know about the value of having a union job,” said Beck, even though she has no intention of seeking another job.

“I love Laguna Beach. I love my kids. You get a special bond with them,” said Beck, whose passengers are generally special-needs students. “I can’t quit now. We’re fighting for something.”

“I haul precious cargo. I’m responsible for those children,” Beck said. “Trash truck drivers get paid more than we do. We feel we should get paid something better than what we’re getting now.”

 

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Comments (3)

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  1. WL says:

    I understand the need to make more money and have benefits. However, you took this position knowing the pay per hour and the limited hours and benefits of work. Why do you EXPECT to make full time money and benefits when you have AGREED to work for four hours. Most trash truck drivers work FULL time so of course they EARN more and receive benefits. If you need to earn more then look for other employment. You are forcing a cash strapped district to pay more for services by your actions. Districts have the right to privatize just as you have the right to agree or not to work for a company. It was your choice now you expect the company to alter it’s budget and future rates of Laguna patrons. That’s not fighting for something

  2. Shelley says:

    WL: You obviously have never been behind the wheel of a 39 foot bus, loaded with chatty students, and driving in rush hour traffic! When Ms. Beck took the job as bus driver, I am sure she was promised raises every year but she said their wages have been frozen now for several years. Not only have they been frozen but if her location is like the other Durham yards, the workers have losing money because the company (in some locations) are not paying them until they pick up their first student, not paying them to fuel or clean their bus, not providing cleaning supplies to keep Durham’s property clean, and trying not to pay them for down time. This is the reason Ms. Beck and others across the country are unionizing! They are tired of multi-billion dollar conglomerate taking advantage of them so they can show their shareholders a profit! It is time workers take notice and stop allowing companies to continue to strip us of our worth!! Now WL go back to your little make-believe world and think about this: As a bus driver, you have children’s lives in your hands every time you pull off the lot. You are responsible not only for their lives but all others in the traffic, as well. You are watching as many as 8 mirrors, RR crossings, countless switches, pressure gauges if your driving an air brake bus, the button for opening and closing the door, and many other things unmentioned because WL you wouldn’t have a clue what I was referring to! And all while a bus driver is keeping peace on the bus with the students to haul them to and from school and field trips safely!! Ms Beck and all of the other drivers deserve to be paid decent living wages. In many school district, janitors get more money to sweep floors and clean toilets than the drivers working for private contract services. And WL you speak of cash strapped districts but it’s okay to pay the superintendent $150,000 plus per year! Wake up WL you shouldn’t comment on something you know very little about!

  3. stacy says:

    THANK YOU SHELLEY ( YOU NAILED IT ON THE HEAD) WE DO ALL THAT YOU HAVE MENTIONED AND MORE. I HAVE BEEN A SCHOOL BUS DRIVER FOR 10 YEARS. I WORK OUT OF THE SANTA ANA YARD WHICH ALSO WORKS WITH THE LAGUNA BEACH DRIVERS. WE ARE ALL HARD WORKING INDIVIDUALS THAT DESERVE RESPECT AND FAIRNESS. SO WL BEFORE YOU OPEN YOUR MOUTH AND SAY RUDE COMMENTS STEP INTO THE SHOES OF A PROFFESSIONAL SCHOOL BUS DRIVER. DID YOU HEAR ME ( I SAID PROFFESSIONAL ) WE DO ALL THE THINGS THAT TRASH TRUCK DRIVERS DO AND MORE. WE TRANSPORT CHILDREN IN 39 FOOT BUSES AND WHEEL CHAIR BUSES THAT INVOLVES USING TIE-DOWNS . THAT WE HAVE TO MAKE SURE ARE SECURE. SO WL COME TRAIN TO BE A SCHOOL BUS DRIVER AND MAYBE THAT WILL CHANGE YOUR MIND ON HOW YOU FEEL. THERE IS ONE THING A TRASH TRUCK DRIVER DOES NOT HAVE ON THERE TRUCK AND THAT IS A MOTHER OR FATHERS CHILD. THAT IS THE MOST PRECIOUS PACKAGE THAT A SCHOOL BUS DRIVER THAT CAN DELIVER HOME SAFE. SO IF YOU HAVE A CHILD OR A FRIEND OR FAMILY MEMBER THAT RIDES A SCHOOL BUS . THANK THAT SCHOOL BUS DRIVER FOR DELIVERING THEM HOME SAFE.

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