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School bus company, union make deal to avert Hub strike

Drivers’ contracts set to expire today

By Vivian Yee
Globe Correspondent / June 30, 2011

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About 2,200 of the city’s most vulnerable students will be able to board buses to class this summer, thanks to a last-minute concession from the school bus drivers’ union.

Drivers’ contracts were set to expire today. But yesterday the union agreed to keep negotiating a new labor pact, allowing school buses to run throughout summer school. Without the agreement, drivers could have gone on strike today, potentially leaving special-education students without a way to attend classes.

First Student, a private company that runs the city’s school buses, and the union averted a strike after about two days of contentious back-and-forth discussions, said Boston public schools spokesman Matthew Wilder.

The district has sat in on negotiations, though the contract is between First Student and the union, the United Steelworkers of America Local 8751.

“We were insistent that we wanted to be able to serve these students, some of the most vulnerable students in our city, who require the services they’re being transported to for their health and well-being,’’ Wilder said.

Most of the schoolchildren who attend summer school are special-education students, he said. Yesterday’s agreement allows the district to avoid relying on its backup plan, developed last week, which called for hiring bus drivers from other companies.

That would have come at extra cost to the schools, Wilder said, shifting resources away from classrooms already strapped for funds.

While the two sides continue to negotiate, drivers will continue to work under terms of the previous, 3-year-old contract.

Union members have promised to work all routes during summer school, which begins tomorrow for some children, but the negotiations face another deadline when the regular school year begins in early September.

Leaders of the bus drivers union had previously threatened to stop work unless contract negotiations were settled by today.

“When we say, ‘No contract, no work,’ that means the summer, too,’’ they announced on the union’s website, which calls for “no concessions.’’

Among other complaints, union leaders say First Student has cut drivers’ wages and failed to work out kinks in a new computerized route system. At the beginning of the school year last fall, parents complained about late buses, and the district worked to address the problem.

Union officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The union is calling for increased job benefits and, more contentiously, raises of 3 percent per year for the next five years, an increase Wilder said was “above and beyond’’ what the district has negotiated with any other union that represents employees who work in the school district.

The district has no plans to cut any jobs and will schedule more bus routes next year, Wilder added.

First Student spokeswoman Bonnie Bastian said the company hopes to resolve the dispute quickly.

Union leaders have rejected one First Student contract offer, accusing the bus company of attacking drivers by proposing harsher alcohol and drug testing, the right to fire workers by mail, and punishing drivers who have more than three absences, among other restrictions.

Vivian Yee can be reached at vyee@globe.com.