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Progress Reported in Negotiations to End Strike by School Bus Drivers

April 05, 2002|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Labor negotiations made progress Thursday between the Los Angeles Unified School District's biggest transportation contractor and its school bus drivers, but no settlement was reached to end a strike that has disrupted 20,000 students' schedules.

The talks ended at about 8 p.m. even as the drivers union failed to expand their strike to another company. Both sides agreed to resume negotiations at noon today.

Union representatives said they were optimistic that the negotiations, mediated by federal labor officials, could lead to a settlement soon. The meeting was the first since an estimated 700 Teamster drivers for Laidlaw Education Services bus company went on strike Tuesday morning, forcing the school district to find alternative transportation for students.

Federal mediator Linda G. Gonzalez said only that the negotiations were "ongoing" and that "there's no telling" how long they will last. She shuttled between two rooms in her Glendale office, talking to the two sides and calling them together at times to confirm points of agreement.

On Thursday morning, striking Laidlaw drivers from Teamsters Union Local 572 lined up in front of the downtown bus yard of Atlantic Express in an effort to persuade that company's 250 drivers to join the strike. Atlantic Express is the school district's second-largest bus operator, and its unionized drivers belong to the same Teamsters local as the Laidlaw strikers.

At one point, strikers blocked the Atlantic Express driveway with a tractor trailer. Los Angeles police ordered the vehicle moved and detained one striker, who was released later. All but 14 Atlantic Express drivers crossed the picket line and drove their regular routes, according to company and union officials.

Laidlaw drivers, who make between $8 and $15 an hour, say they want parity with drivers employed directly by the district, who earn between $15 and $24 an hour. Laidlaw drivers also complain that their health and retirement benefits are inferior.

Don Owens, a spokesman for the national Teamsters' headquarters, said that the two sides in Thursday's talks were close to agreement on wages and health benefits, but he declined to give specific numbers.

"Retirement is the main sticking point," he added, speaking outside the Glendale site.

Executives for Laidlaw were not available for comment.

By using district-employed supervisors and other companies, the district has managed to keep bus service going for the students usually served by Laidlaw. Buses, however, ran about an hour late on average Thursday.

Athletic events and field trips were curtailed as the district prioritized pickup for students in special education and those taking the Stanford 9 assessment tests.

With its own drivers and contracted services, the district usually shuttles a total of 75,000 students over 710 square miles every school day.

The failure to add Atlantic to the strike appeared to be a setback for the Laidlaw drivers, who don't have a local strike fund or visible support from other unions. Local Teamsters leaders have used the insult "scabs" against fellow members who, employed directly by the district and by Atlantic Express, have replaced strikers.

In addition, the union local is only recently emerging from a federally mandated reorganization after a corruption scandal 18 months ago.

Carla Bruno, vice president of the Atlantic Express bus line, said that all Atlantic routes were covered Thursday.

"Our drivers belong to the same union," said Bruno. "But this is not an Atlantic Express strike; this is a Laidlaw strike."

Bruno added that Atlantic's contract with Local 572 prohibits drivers from striking.

District-employed bus supervisors who are members of Local 572 also have a no-strike clause in their contract, according to members and district officials.

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