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Drivers OK Contract and End Walkout

Education: Workers are expected to return to school bus routes today. Pact includes 3.5% raise.

April 29, 2002|LAURA LOH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Striking Los Angeles school bus drivers are expected to be back at work today after members of Teamsters Local 572 voted Sunday to end their 26-day walkout and approve a contract that gives them pay raises but leaves some health-care issues unresolved.

The three-year contract with Laidlaw Education Services gives the drivers a 3.5% annual wage increase--retroactive to August--and a week of paid vacation each year. The union had sought a 5% annual increase.

Before the raise, Laidlaw drivers made $8 to $15 an hour. District-employed drivers earn $13 to $24 an hour.

During the strike, which affected nearly 20,000 students, the Los Angeles Unified School District relied on smaller contractors and its own buses and drivers to cover Laidlaw routes.

Medical benefits, the final sticking point in the negotiations, will be written into the contract after an arbitrator decides in coming weeks whether to accept the union's medical plan or Laidlaw's current plan.

The union said its plan would provide coverage for every employee, while the company's is so expensive that many drivers are forced to rely on public assistance for their medical care.

Only 35% of Laidlaw bus drivers are currently enrolled in the medical program, according to union officials.

Union negotiators agreed to leave the matter to arbitration after obtaining a compromise that will allow for the creation of a fund to help defray the drivers' medical insurance costs, said Rick Middleton, the head of the union.

Laidlaw representatives could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The bus drivers who gathered at Alexander Hamilton High School in West Los Angeles voted 339 to 58 to end the strike, as the union urged, despite some confusion over details of the agreement.

"I voted yes, because this is the best we could do," said Paul Michels, 34, who has been with Laidlaw for eight years.

Alfredo Cornejo, 24, said he voted against the contract because he was extremely disappointed with the outcome of the negotiations.

"We stood in the picket lines for four weeks, and we didn't get nothing," Cornejo said.

Many drivers said that, although they didn't get everything they asked for, the playing field has been leveled because the union successfully flexed its muscle by making good on the threat to strike.

Some said the strike had hit them hard financially, and they were eager to get back to work. Carmen Villezcas, who drives routes in Tujunga, said she had been forced to cut corners by walking instead of using her car.

Strikers lost about 8% of their yearly income during the walkout, according to union officials. They each received $55 a week in compensation from the union's strike fund.

At its peak, 842 drivers were on strike, but many crossed the picket line in the final days of the strike and, by the end, there were about 600 holdouts, union officials said.

Gene Carnes, 61, said that the company has a long way to go to make drivers happy.

Morale is low, he said, partly because management treats the drivers badly. "I've been here seven years, and morale has never been high," Carnes said.

Still, he said, the agreement represents some progress. And Carnes was all smiles as he thought about getting back to his routes.

"I'm going to be out there Monday and I'm going to do a lot of apologizing," he said. "I really miss my kids."

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