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A Magnificent Comeback

How one Arkansas local fought injustice, lost its bargaining power, then won it back.

By John Rosales

The Pulaski County Special School District surrounds North Little Rock and Little Rock School Districts like a doughnut. With 39 school campuses spread over 750 square miles of scenic Arkansas countryside, it can take school bus drivers an hour to reach their first passenger.

Until recently, Pulaski County drivers were not paid for the time they spent driving from the bus compound to the first pick-up point. They were not compensated for conducting pre-trip safety checks or for their drive back to the compound after the last drop-off. Their pay was tied not to hours worked, but to the number of miles driven with at least one student on board, usually about 115 miles.

We lost some good drivers, but "we're rebuilding..and getting stronger," says Emry Chesterfield of his local's long struggle to regain bargaining rights.

“Our bus drivers were on the job for an hour or so before they started getting paid,” says Emry Chesterfield, a bus driver for 31 years and president of the Pulaski Association of Support Staff (PASS). “After you dropped off your last student, your pay just stopped.”

When you multiply 325 drivers times two donated hours per day, “that’s a bunch of time we were giving away,” Chesterfield says.

PASS legally challenged this injustice, and when the superintendent refused to reconsider how drivers are compensated, the drivers went on strike in January 2004. The school board called an emergency meeting during the six-day strike where they stripped PASS of its bargaining rights and began discussions to outsource transportation services to Laidlaw International.

Leaders of PASS—a wall-to-wall unit with more than 400 members representing education support professionals in 60 job positions—began working with the Arkansas Education Association (AEA) and NEA to plan a comeback.

Chesterfield and other PASS members joined Sandi Roy, UniServ director, and Laura Montgomery, president of the National Council of ESPs and vice president of PASS, to devise the following strategy to get their union back:

Go to the Community —Meeting with community leaders and parents to inform them about the impact ESPs have on schools was key. “Our drivers are career people,” Roy says. “They drove the parents of some of the children they are driving now.” PASS members also contacted labor unions, the media, and other AEA locals, who “were willing to do anything we asked,” Chesterfield adds.

Do Research — When the superintendent threatened to contact Laidlaw, Association members “did a lot of research on Laidlaw and privatization,” Roy says. A task force of members contacted school trustees, parents, and teachers armed with research, press clippings, and testimonials from other districts about Laidlaw’s performance record. For example, Roy learned that if Laidlaw drivers miss picking up a student, they aren’t required to return. “PASS drivers always return for students,” she says. They pointed out that Laidlaw was a typical privateer with poor benefits and minimum job security.

Parents began contacting Roy and Montgomery to express their support.

“They had faith and trust and respect for our ESPs,” Roy says. “They realized the relationship between [ESPs] and their children....The students and parents learned there is a team working here.”

Make Your Argument — Staging a comeback included developing a message and driving it home to members, community organizations, the school community, and the media.

“We said over and over again that the bus is an extension of the classroom,” Roy says. They also stressed the long-term relationship between career ESPs and students, parents, and teachers.

The strategy also impressed board members. Last July, they voted to return recognition and bargaining rights to PASS. At press time, negotiators were determining how best to compensate drivers for their time on the job, including the pre-trip safety inspection, and other job issues.

We lost some good drivers, but “we’re rebuilding...and getting stronger,” says Emry Chesterfield of his local’s long struggle to regain bargaining rights.

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