A little after 5:00 a.m. on April 2, Los Angeles resident Celestine Lewis woke up, got her two children ready for school and then walked them to their bus stop. Because the bus arrives before sunrise in a dangerous neighborhood, Lewis waited with them, just as she does every morning. At about the same time, several miles away, Jose Gaona was just arriving home from his night job. He took his two sons to the school bus stop and then returned home to get some sleep. That morning, these two families encountered the same misfortune - the school bus never arrived. Specifically, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) bus drivers employed by Laidlaw Education Services went on strike to protest for better wages and benefits. During the ensuing four-week work stoppage, the Lewis and Gaona families, as well as thousands of others like them, labored while their school bus routes were delayed, deferred or cancelled. As in all school transportation strikes, while the drivers and their employer haggled over a suitable deal, the real victims were the children. "We've had kids out here on the picket line with us," says Chanita Gardner, a striking driver for Laidlaw. "The kids missing school is the part of this that they need to show on the news." Naturally, most school bus driver strikes are the result of sour contract negotiations. Unorganized "wildcat" strikes based on other issues also occur from time to time. But regardless of type, all driver strikes have the potential to disrupt student transportation, frustrate parents, school officials and others, induce exorbitant financial losses and lead to wholesale changes in pupil transportation operations. The bottom line is that driver strikes are rarely a good thing for anyone involved, not even the presumed winner. When dealing with a strike, school transportation operators should consider the following three questions:
1. What steps can be taken to prevent a strike or to prepare for one?
2. If a strike breaks, how can it be slowed, resisted or stopped?
3. What lessons can be learned to avert future strikes?
Answering these questions will give student transportation personnel effective management tools for addressing this increasingly common phenomenon. A strike-proof culture
When negotiating parties refuse to come to an agreement - or worse, won't even discuss their differences - a strike is nearly unavoidable. Though it may sometimes seem to be the case, these communication breakdowns are not a plot by greedy contractors or seditious unions. Rather, such disagreements most frequently stem from two main problems - the lack of free-flowing information or the absence of a friendly relationship. Filling these two voids is the best way to establish a healthy working environment, one in which striking is unlikely. "Every strike can be avoided," says Jim Ferraro, general manager for Laidlaw in Los Angeles and head negotiator for the company during the LAUSD strike. "You have to keep employees well aware of what is taking place and continue to put information in their hands so they can make sound decisions." In the LAUSD strike, for instance, one of the pivotal demands made by the drivers was for a reduction in health insurance premiums. Laidlaw's claim was that the company's health care provider dictated the prices for health insurance. Two weeks into the strike, both the driver's union (Teamsters Union Local 572) and Laidlaw began searching for a new health care provider to reduce costs. Although it may not have prevented the walkout altogether, a more informed driver force could have tackled this issue well in advance of the strike. "You have to have a free, open and honest exchange of information in a strike situation," says Pat Houlahan, director of administrative services for Francis Howell School District in St. Louis. Francis Howell and neighboring Ft. Zumwalt School District were mired in a three-month driver strike in late 2001 and early 2002 when their contractor, First Student, failed to reach a deal with the drivers' union. Houlahan says that the strike taught him how important it is for both parties to keep open lines of communication. One way of accomplishing this is by passing out forms with updates on important issues such as budget allocations. Also effective are regular meetings with all employee positions represented and evaluations that solicit employee feedback on management, pay and working conditions. "The employer has to be understanding of the drivers' needs, and the drivers deserve to know where the money is going," says Houlahan. In addition to keeping information traffic high, operations can also benefit from having a good-natured relationship with their driver force and its union. Parties may start out with honorable intentions, but strikes often breed a strong feeling of antagonism that interferes with impartial negotiations. Breaking the confrontational norm is critical to success in labor disputes. "Starting from a common denominator is the key to labor negotiations," says Todd Fuller, media relations director for the Missouri State Teacher's Assn. (MSTA). "You have to come to the table with a willingness to discuss the issues and a congenial attitude instead of an adversarial one." The MSTA represents teachers in labor matters but also assists support staff and school bus drivers. According to Fuller, the MSTA and similar associations can help ease labor relations by fostering a team attitude where everyone's goal is the same - to help children. Pre-strike preparation
Sometimes strikes are immediately foreseeable, due to a strike vote, an expired contract or a direct verbal threat. Other times, they creep up slowly and go into effect without warning. In either case, every district, regardless of its situation, should develop a pre-strike operations plan. Although the vast majority of operators interviewed for this story had no such plan in place, its value is hard to deny. Initial development of a pre-strike plan takes place at the beginning of a district's business relationship with the transportation provider or the drivers themselves. When a district contracts with a private transportation provider, the contract should make it clear who is responsible for all costs incurred during a work stoppage. This provision protects a neutral third party from all subsequent expenses of a labor war. In the case of a school district that handles its own transportation, drivers should be notified at the time of their hire what the state and federal laws say about the liability in public employee strikes. Next, a contingency plan must be drawn up to serve as a flexible guideline in the event that a strike does occur. Special Response Corp., a strike security provider in Baltimore, recommends that operators ask the following questions to help with pre-strike planning: