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Laidlaw Goes Directly to Its Striking Drivers

Labor: Union leaders are upset as firm sends letters to workers with their paychecks. Talks resume.


Labor talks resumed Friday between striking school bus drivers and the Los Angeles Unified School District's main transportation contractor, Laidlaw Education Services, after a determined effort by the bus company to influence pickets.

Teamsters Union Local 572 officials had planned a vote on Laidlaw's latest proposal for as soon as Sunday morning. The union leadership opposes that offer and hopes talks will lead to a better one.

A settlement would end the nine-day strike, which has caused delays for the 20,000 schoolchildren along Laidlaw's 700 bus routes. At least one school, the Brentwood Science Magnet, sent students home early to accommodate the reduced bus schedule. Field trips and sporting events also have been disrupted.

The resumption of negotiations over the wages and benefits for 842 drivers came on the first payday since the strike began. Reflecting work before the walkout, some drivers received only one day's wages, minus union dues and health insurance fees.

Accompanying those paychecks were letters from Laidlaw Vice President Jim Ferraro outlining the company's position and settlement proposal, which would increase drivers' wages an average of 6.3% each year over three years. They now earn between $8 and $15 an hour.

"We do not believe that your union leaders are acting in your best interest," Ferraro wrote.

Teamster officials complained that Laidlaw executives made an end run around the local's negotiating team.

Don Owens, a Teamster spokesman who flew in from national headquarters last week, also accused Laidlaw of taking advantage of the absence Friday of the head of Local 572, Rick Middleton, who was on jury duty.

Ferraro said he was only giving union members information their leaders had withheld.

Ferraro said many of the workers did not know that Laidlaw had offered wage increases retroactive to Sept. 1. For some drivers, that could offset the financial burden of striking for nearly two weeks, Ferraro said.

Owens said that he and other Teamster leaders were completely forthright with their membership, and that they confronted Ferraro and other executives at the company's Gardena bus lot to rebut their arguments.

The school district, which has its own in-house drivers and contracts with other bus firms, has been using substitute drivers on the Laidlaw routes. Still, in recent days, students have had to wait an average of 50 minutes for a ride.

Meanwhile, the school district has hired seven small bus operators to ferry students to varsity athletic events next week in the event that talks fail again.

Although wages would be improved under Laidlaw's proposed settlement, a relatively spare pension plan would remain the same. Laidlaw is offering earlier eligibility for health coverage for new hires: six months rather than a year. But the union says those benefits need improvement.

Laidlaw did not include those details in its letter to employees.

The school district's transportation branch Director Antonio Rodriguez said he hopes the talks are successful.

"Hopefully they will reach amicable agreement that will be good for both sides," he said, "so we can get about our business, which is getting kids to school."

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