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.
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.”