New Haven students may have April vacation this week, but it has been no holiday for some of their bus drivers.
On April 12, bus drivers at New Haven’s First Student Inc. voted 119 to 36 in favor of union representation. But the company’s drivers say they are now anxious about how they will be treated upon returning to work on Monday and whether they will keep their jobs.
“Most of us are worried about persecution from the company,” driver Felix Marquez said. “What can we do if they take action against us?”
Company drivers said they are hoping for better health benefits, better job security and better working conditions after voting to be represented by Service Employees International Union Local 760. They added that they decided to unionize because First Student ignored repeated complaints about working conditions and safety, refused to give paid holidays, and generally showed a lack of respect for the drivers.
“The driver never has any rights,” Marquez said. “[First Student] would put drivers on unpaid suspension whenever they wanted, without any reason.”
The drivers said they have been seeking a voice at work and to have pressing issues resolved — particularly those concerning the safety of drivers and students.
“We have rats on all our buses; the other day one just jumped right on to a driver’s leg while she was driving,” driver Zamari Santiago said. “With a bus load of kids, anything could happen.”
Rich Gabriele, a contract manager for First Student, declined to comment on the situation.
“We will be seeking advice from our legal counsel,” Gabriele said.
But Marquez and Santiago said that First Student held mandatory meetings at which management made anti-union speeches. They added that benefits such as paid holidays were offered to workers who would vote against SEIU representation.
“All of a sudden they started giving us breakfasts and lunches and making all kinds of promises when they found out about our desire for a union,” Marquez said.
Santiago added that the company also started handing out flyers stating that the union could not keep the promises it made to the drivers and that SEIU had never negotiated anything with First Student and could not speak for the employees.
The New Haven community has shown support for the drivers’ unionization drive. A letter written to First Student by local clergy and the New Haven Board of Aldermen criticized the company’s intimidation techniques and urged the company to respect the workers’ desire for unionization.
Since the privatization of bus service in New Haven, the city has awarded contracts to the company that bids the lowest at an auction. But once the company wins a particular service, it often makes up for the low bid by cutting costs, which can result in lower pay and fewer benefits for drivers, said Mark Lunt, an SEIU organizer.
He said a union is the only way under the current bidding system to ensure that the drivers’ rights are respected.
But while Lunt said the union will put the drivers’ requests in legal terms and try to get legislation for pay and benefits, he does not think it will solve all of their problems.
“Unfortunately [First Student] can still victimize and persecute the drivers, and they probably will,” Lunt said.