Management

6 tips to strengthen relationships with unions

Nicole Schlosser
Posted on November 19, 2013
Orange USD Transportation Supervisor Ellen Johnson (front row, far left) and Director of Transportation Pam McDonald (to Johnson’s left) say they take a “family photo” with the bus drivers every school year.Photo by Suzan Grab

Orange USD Transportation Supervisor Ellen Johnson (front row, far left) and Director of Transportation Pam McDonald (to Johnson’s left) say they take a “family photo” with the bus drivers every school year.
Photo by Suzan Grab

A transportation supervisor or director can sometimes feel like he or she is stuck between a rock and a hard place with the school budget and board and the driver unions, not to mention parents and principals. With concerns such as healthcare benefits becoming more and more of a sticking point, negotiations can be a challenge.

“In a middle management position, you have very little flexibility for change because of state laws and work policies,” explains Colleen Murphy, director of transportation for Austintown Local Schools and northeast director of the Ohio Association for Pupil Transportation. “We’re here to keep kids safe. You have to take that into consideration when dealing with someone who is asking for something above and beyond what we normally do.”

After speaking with directors who have extensive experience in building good relationships with their unions — some of whom started out as drivers and union members — we offer tips they shared to help other directors solidify their relationships.

1. Keep communication transparent, constant, to build trust
Keeping the line of communication open with your union is key to having a successful relationship, says Jeff Walker, director of transportation at Litchfield Elementary School District #79 and president of Transportation Administrators of Arizona. Having worked in the past with districts that employed unionized bus drivers, he recommends providing the union with any information they request that you can legally give them, such as hours worked or number of field trips each employee has performed.  

“As long as you are following bargaining agreement guidelines, there's nothing to hide,” he adds.

He also advises being proactive and keeping union reps informed about upcoming changes. If a unique situation occurs, meet with the reps to explain why it is occurring and what you need from them or how you need to proceed.

For example, he says, a district he used to work for had a bargaining agreement that only allowed route drivers to drive field trips; subs were not eligible. He worked with the union to make an exception during the first week of school one year to keep route drivers on their routes for student safety reasons and allow the subs to drive athletic trips that interfered with routes.  Any field trips that did not interfere with routes went to the route drivers.  

“The union was happy to work with me on that [because of] student safety, and they knew that I fairly assigned all trips during the school year,” Walker explains.

Additionally, allowing union members to meet with the management team at least a couple times per year to discuss questions or concerns will strengthen the relationship. This is especially important since communication between the union and management often only occurs with the union reps, and if the reps are not communicating information to the members, preventable misunderstandings can arise.  

Jeff Walker, director of transportation at Litchfield Elementary School District #79 and president of Transportation Administrators of Arizona, says that letting union members meet with the management team a couple times per year with questions or concerns will strengthen the relationship.
Jeff Walker, director of transportation at Litchfield Elementary School District #79 and president of Transportation Administrators of Arizona, says that letting union members meet with the management team a couple times per year with questions or concerns will strengthen the relationship.

Walker acknowledges that it can be intimidating, especially to face a large union, but he points out that when they see that management is trying to work with them, it will usually pay off in the long run.

“Once they knew that I had the driving background, the trust in that relationship built up, and we got along great,” he adds.

Pam McDonald, director of transportation, and Ellen Johnson, transportation supervisor, Orange (Calif.) Unified School District (USD), both of whom have worked at the district for nearly 30 years, agree.

Before putting GPS on the vehicles, for example, Johnson and McDonald called a drivers’ meeting, had a vendor demonstrate the system for the group, and explained how the system would help them, to alleviate any worries the drivers might have about disciplinary issues.
 
2. Pitching in builds a team
When needed, directors should take part in the drivers’ duties to build a team. Murphy found that to be the case when she shared in the driving after significant turnover at her district. The move prompted more team spirit and less animosity among the new crop of drivers.

In April 2012, the district’s board of education voted to eliminate healthcare benefits for bus drivers. Within 16 months, the school had to replace 30 of its 43 drivers, which made providing service even more challenging. Last year, Murphy was short six drivers on the first day of school. Although a neighboring district sent over four drivers for the first two weeks, she pitched in and drove every morning and afternoon for the entire school year while keeping up with her other duties.

“I gained respect from the new drivers because they know that I am going to work right beside them, so instead of trying to go over my head, they’ll bring issues to me, where it’s most easily resolved,” Murphy says. “We’re part of a team.”

This effort has allowed Murphy to reduce the frequency that she deals with union issues from up to twice a week to about once every two months.


Bus drivers at Austintown Local Schools  take part in a safety event. Director Colleen Murphy drove during a shortage, strengthening her relationship with the drivers.
Bus drivers at Austintown Local Schools  take part in a safety event. Director Colleen Murphy drove during a shortage, strengthening her relationship with the drivers.
3. Keep an open mind on requests
Walker reminds directors not to automatically assume that the union is against management. The union may request an addendum to its bargaining agreement that may help your department or assist you in hiring and retaining good employees.  

While requests for higher salary and benefits definitely burden cash-strapped school districts, such changes may also increase the district’s hiring potential for better candidates, Walker points out.  
“Bargaining is usually a lengthy process, so take the time to evaluate each request,” he recommends.

4. Know the collective bargaining agreement
Johnson and McDonald say that becoming familiar with the collective bargaining agreement and working to keep the contract minimal in size are important. They keep theirs at one page, but they have seen some that were up to 30 pages.

The more rules there are, the more opportunity you have to accidentally break them, Johnson adds.

5. Research bargaining agreements of other districts
Particularly with neighboring districts, directors need to be familiar with what other unions are doing, so they won't be caught off-guard when their union makes similar requests.

“Drivers meet other drivers on field trips and love to talk about their working environment,” Walker says.

6. Emphasize equality
McDonald and Johnson say they stress that every driver, no matter what size bus they drive or student population they carry, is of equal importance. That applies to enforcing the union’s agreements as well.

McDonald, with her past school bus driving experience, can see through some requests to the agendas of some drivers and try to ensure that the resulting agreement affects everybody equally.

“We didn’t write it. We didn’t vote on it. They did. And once they ratify it and hand it to us, as managers, we enforce these rules equally,” Johnson says.

Related Topics: unions

Nicole Schlosser Managing Editor
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