March 18, 2015
By Bill Hohlfeld
The men and women who drive our children to and from school each day, and those who accompany them in order to monitor the safety of those children, have a simple request. They want the right to be heard.
As it now stands, they don’t always have that right. Under the current system, if the representative of a school district, such as the transportation director, chooses to do so, any driver or monitor can be decertified unilaterally, without the opportunity to explain or appeal. Consider the case of school bus driver, Ramona M. who was decertified by the Yonkers School District and then terminated from Mile Square Transportation Inc.
A veteran driver of many years, Ramona was parked appropriately in the bus ramp. An impatient driver who should not even have been in the ramp clearly marked : “School Buses Only” demanded that Ramona move the bus. As it was not correct operating procedure to do so, Ramona refused. Unfortunately for Ramona, that insistent driver was married to someone on the school board and Ramona was fired. It took Ramona and her union13 weeks of tireless efforts to get this situation sorted out. Those were 13 weeks without pay, for something that never should have happened.
If this were an isolated incident, it would be bad enough. The truth is, this type of incident happens far too often. According to Dylan Valle, Organizer for TWU Local 100, it is a trend. Since 2010 this type of unilateral decertification has tripled. An atmosphere of “why? because I can” has been brewing for the past five years.
There is the story of a man we will refer to as “ Phillipe.” (Disciplined drivers don’t like any undue publicity as they are concerned about possible blacklisting.) “Phillipe” had 14 years experience on the job and a squeaky clean record. At the time of his incident, he had just taken a refresher course with the union which stressed the importance of never arguing with a client and trying to resolve issues through a dispatcher.
His company had a policy that stated not to turn off the engine of the bus in cold weather if students were on board. This policy was in effect to maintain a level of heat in the bus for the health and well being of those students. As he idled in front of a school in Greenburgh one frigid day, in a bus with 15 students on board, the principal appeared and demanded that the bus engine be turned off immediately. “Phillipe” attempted to explain he was adhering to company policy. He also suggested that the principal contact the dispatcher, who had the authority to give an order to override company policy. Instead of resulting in a phone call and an issue being resolved, it resulted in “Phillipe” being decertified.
Once again, there was a long term solution. In “Phillipe”’s case, the company he worked for recognized his value as an employee and found him another assignment. But, that is not always so easy. And when that type of forced relocation happens to a driver, that driver loses all seniority at his new location, his or her hours may be cut, and health benefits may be lost. And, there is no guarantee that a new spot will be forthcoming.
One of the ironies of the situation is that these are unionized employees who are have a collective bargaining agreement with their employer. The problem is they are only entitled to use the arbitration process clearly spelled out in their agreement if they are disciplined or terminated by their employer. So a situation exists where school districts, having outsourced their transportation services, have none of the responsibilities of an employer, yet are in a position to terminate those drivers at will without offering any opportunity for the employee to address the issue.
That is why TWU local 100, its drivers and its monitors are counting on the passage of Bill A2781/S3474. This bill would require school districts to abide by the existing collective bargaining agreement between its transportation contractor and its employees with regard to disciplinary action of bus drivers and assistants. It doesn’t cost the school district any money and it grants the employees of the transportation contractors the dignity in the workplace that we all want.
Gus Moghrabi, Director of School Bus Organizing for Local 100, explained it well when he said:
“ I came from Lebanon, where if you don’t agree with the government they just shoot you or put you in jail. I am happy to be in America, where people can speak freely. But I never thought that you could just be fired and not even have the right to tell your side of the story. That’s not right.” Let’s hope the State Senate and State Assembly see it that way too when they vote on this legislation.