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Striking Bus Drivers Reject Offer

Labor: Only two of 415 voting members back new Laidlaw contract. Benefits are the stumbling block.

April 16, 2002|SOLOMON MOORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Striking school bus drivers on Monday rejected a settlement proposal that significantly increased their hourly wage but did little to improve their benefits, union officials said.

That means the 2-week-old walkout, affecting 20,000 Los Angeles Unified School District students, will continue.

According to Teamsters Union Local 572 head Rick Middleton, only two of the 415 voting members accepted the offer made late last week by Laidlaw Education Services, the district's largest transportation contractor.

Union leaders had recommended against the offer and returned to talks with Laidlaw on Friday night in hopes of improving it. Those talks failed Saturday morning, and no future negotiations have been scheduled.

"The members are as concerned as we are," said Middleton. "But they're holding tough. They've told me they'll strike as long it takes, plus one day."

Middleton said union leaders hope to end the deadlock on benefits by shopping for a less expensive health plan than the one currently offered to Laidlaw bus drivers. If such a plan is found, Middleton said, the savings would purchase wider coverage.

Laidlaw Vice President Jim Ferraro said he asked the union to stop the strike while both sides looked for a better health plan, but the Teamsters refused.

"Now we're just waiting," Ferraro said. "We're definitely shut down."

Ferraro would not say how much the strike is costing Laidlaw, but the L.A. Unified contract is among the company's largest, and Ferraro did say that executives have begun to discuss cost-cutting measures, including layoffs, to offset losses.

Since the strike began, the district has put its in-house transportation supervisors and dispatchers behind the wheels of district-owned buses on routes usually served by Laidlaw. Students, however, still are experiencing delays of nearly an hour each way. At least two schools have shortened their schedules during the strike.

Until this week, field trips and athletic events had been curtailed. Now, district transportation officials have worked out several deals with smaller firms to provide 70 new replacement buses to ferry students to varsity athletic events.

The striking bus drivers have no local fund to help them during the walkout. This week, the national Teamsters office began to pay each striker $55 a week.

The Teamsters have been striking for wages comparable to district-employed school bus drivers. Laidlaw's last offer would have increased their drivers' hourly wage by an average of 6.3% annually for three years. They now earn $8 to $15 an hour.

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