School Bus Safety Shouldn’t Go to the Lowest Bidder

Cross-posted from DailyKos

It was announced today that UK transportation giant FirstGroup PLC will be purchasing Laidlaw International - the owner of Greyhound - for nearly £2 billion. For most, this may sound like another stale business story. But FirstGroup and Laidlaw are also two of the largest private sector school bus operators in the U.S.

Roughly half of the nation's school districts outsource the responsibility of driving your children to and from school. The Teamsters are not against outsourcing services to achieve savings through economies of scale. We represent both public and private sector drivers. What we object to are companies that cut corners, fail to pay descent wages and put children at risk.

First Student, the U.S. subsidiary of FirstGroup, is just such a company. And that is what should concern every parent who sends their child off to school on First Student bus.

Not only has First Student gone back on its word to remain neutral in union organizing efforts, as ordered by its board of directors. But its two and one-half year failure to conduct background checks on its drivers in Columbus, Ohio, resulted in a district-wide shutdown last month.

The company's failure to conduct the background checks was discovered after a First Student driver was pulled over on his way to pick up a group of students. In the seat next to him was a syringe of cocaine.

After Ohio's attorney general stepped in to conduct the state mandated background checks, five of the 60 First Student drivers were found to have blemished records that prevented them from returning to work.

"I am gravely concerned about this," Ohio AG Marc Dunn told Columbus Channel 10 News.

What's worse is that this sort of irresponsibility is not limited to Ohio. According to the Channel 10 story:

  • 85 percent of the First Student buses in New Jersey failed state safety inspections.

  • In Chicopee, Massachusetts, the school board fired first student last year for poor performance, which included children being on buses longer than the legal maximum.

  • Three years ago, Bath, Maine, schools dropped First Student saying the company failed to meet its transportation needs, failed to properly train drivers and failed to submit results for medical examinations, drug testing and background checks.

And just a few days after the arrest in Columbus, Ohio, a First Student driver in St. Paul, Minnesota, struck and killed a pedestrian. He was driving on a suspended license and had a record of repeated moving and parking violations.

This pattern of disregard for safety has also cost the life of at least one worker and injured another in Boston. A First Student mechanic died March 9 from inhaling high levels of carbon monoxide in a poorly ventilated area of the Boston bus yard where he worked. Just one month later, on April 18, another mechanic was injured at a separate First Student Boston yard where malfunctioning safety devices caused him to be struck by a 10-ton air jack used to lift buses.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration determined First Student didn't perform annual inspections that could have identified safety problems. OSHA recently cited First Student for nine violations of workplace safety standards and has called for $95,000 in fines.

Combined, Laidlaw and First Student would control half of the private school bus market, subjecting hundreds of thousands of kids in virtually every community in every state to First Student's disregard for safety. Add in Greyhound and the city bus services the companies operate and the risks are even greater.

The Teamsters represent a few thousand First Student drivers and more are voting to join the union every day. About 7,000 Laidlaw drivers are also members. The companies are in the same business, but have drastically different records.

Where we are winning contracts at First Student, workers are driving up safety standards and speaking out about lax maintenance procedures. A union contract and grievance procedures give workers a voice - a safety net that allows them the opportunity to speak up without fearing reprisal.

A union contract also means that bus companies make a bigger investment in wages and benefits. This makes them more likely to hire and retain high quality professional drivers rather than settle for sketchy applicants willing to take what they can get.

Companies that pay the lowest wages often are the ones with the highest turnover and lowest hiring standards. Turnover at First Student is around 30 percent a year. This constant need to fill seats and maintain lowball school contracts could easily persuade some managers to "forget" background checks or to report drug testing results. And while taxpayers get the benefit of lower school transportation costs, who will pay the price?

Find out who is driving the buses at your children's schools. Ask if they are union. If they are not, consider driving your kid to school yourself.

Tags: First Student, highway safety, Labor, Laidlaw, outsourcing, safety, School, school safety, Teamsters (all tags)


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