Attempts by District 11 bus drivers to form a union are being stonewalled by the D-11 school board, but the drivers may soon force the issue to a head -- possibly through a sick-out or a walk-out in protest of their treatment.
The drivers have been petitioning the board since October for permission to vote on forming an independent local in the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents transit workers in Colorado Springs, Pueblo and Denver, and school bus drivers in Douglas County and Denver.
The efforts coincide with similar complaints by school bus drivers in nearby Woodland Park who have complained of a lack of respect and administrative support. As in District 11, Woodland Park drivers have accused school administrators of siding with parents and kids over the drivers when disputes arise. Drivers in both school districts cite unfair treatment and lack of administrative support over enforcing behavioral rules while students are en route to and from school.
On Feb. 16, Woodland Park drivers staged a walk-out that left 600 students stranded.
Board busy elsewhere
Organizers remain mum about whether or not a similar walk-out is planned in District 11. However, drivers are increasingly frustrated over the school board's refusal to address their concerns.
Because D-11 drivers are district employees, the drivers can't vote on whether to form a union without authorization from the school board. The board, though, has refused to allow bus drivers to proceed with such a vote. In addition, organizers say they have received little help or support from their district colleagues, the Colorado Springs Education Association, which is the largest teachers' union in the region.
D-11 Board President Lyman Kaiser's claims of uncertainty over the budget and the future of busing in the district have contributed to the board's refusal to allow a union vote.
"There are so many funding uncertainties and questions about whether we'll even continue busing, though," he said, "that a union would complicate things. We're trying to work out their complaints through other avenues."
However, union organizers say the school board has stymied their efforts for six months. Drivers say their unionizing efforts are more a result of being treated as "second-class citizens" by the D-11 administration, and less a result of demands for pay increases or increased benefits.
"This isn't about big bucks and benefits," said Donna Sheeks, a D-11 driver for 13 years. "What we want is a voice in our fate, dignity on the job and support from the administration."
Sheeks said some drivers are upset because "the administration automatically sides against the driver if a student or parent complains. They don't listen to our side or let us talk to the parents to resolve the problem. Drivers have lost their routes on the say-so of a kid."
Sheeks also complained that the administration ignores seniority. "Workers who put in their years should reap the benefit of those years," she said, "but the transportation office keeps giving field trips and extra hours to new drivers over established drivers."
Sexism and no respect
Drivers are also unhappy over alleged gender bias. Male drivers tend to get suspended with pay, they say, but female drivers get suspended without pay.
Head driver Calvin Pegues agreed with Sheeks. "Our main concern," he said, "is fairness and respect. We've never asked the board for more money.
"Every time we address the board," he said, "they just stare at us without expression. You can tell from their body language that they don't take us seriously. To them, we're only bus drivers."
Not all the drivers are pro-union. A reported 74 of 120 drivers have signed the union petition.
Willie Best, a D-11 driver for 20 years, makes nearly $14 an hour (starting drivers make $9 an hour) and is about to retire at half pay. He sees no need for a union.
"We only pay 25 percent of our medical and dental benefits," said Best. "I see absolutely no problem. As far as I'm concerned, this is a darned good job."
Two weeks ago, Janis Borschardt of ATU International flew from Washington, D.C. to Colorado Springs to meet with D-11 Director of Human Resources Dave Shenkel and Rich Nagl, an attorney with Holme Roberts & Owen who was representing District 11.
"I asked Mr. Shenkel to grant the drivers their constitutional right to vote on a union," said Borschardt, "and I was told the board would take it up in executive session at a future meeting. The board is pretty anti-union, though, so we're anticipating a 'no' vote from them.
"Wherever unions come in, though," she added, "turnover rates go down and safety rates up. It can only help D-11, not hurt it. The drivers have no legal recourse, though, until they get a 'yes' or 'no' answer."
Paul Church, organizing chairman of ATU Local 19, said the D-11 drivers first came to him about a year ago.
"We first approached the administration about having an election last October," he said. "They told us it wasn't a good time because a ballot issue was coming up and they didn't want any negative publicity. So we said we'd wait. But every time we've come before the board since then, they've refused to give an answer."
Church said he has tried with limited success to enlist the support of other unions.
No help from CSEA
Union representatives from the Pikes Peak Area Council have attended school board meetings in support of the D-11 drivers, but the Colorado Springs Education Association (CSEA) has provided scant help.
"When we first approached CSEA," said Church, "they agreed to speak at a board meeting, but they backed out when they got caught up in a struggle with the board over teacher retirement benefits.
"Then they were going to write a letter of support, but they didn't do that either. They've given us a little advice, but they haven't been much help, really."
CSEA President Kathy Glasmann insisted that the teachers' union supports the drivers, "but we've been preoccupied with the basic needs of our own people.
"I've personally talked with every D-11 board member on the drivers' behalf," she protested.
Asked if CSEA intends to write the requested letter, Glasmann said: "I can do so if the CSEA board directs, but it wouldn't be a 'Come on District 11, you've got to do this' kind of letter. It would be strictly in support of the principle that people have to work together to solve problems."
Timing not good
The board could either refuse outright to respond to the requests, or could make their position known with a formal vote.
School board member Karen Teja defended the board's lack of action, claiming "We've had so much on our plate -- first the mill levy override election in November and then budget-cutting problems -- that we've chosen not to vote."
Teja and Kaiser said they don't believe the school board will act on the school bus drivers' request for a union vote in the foreseeable future.
"The timing for a vote isn't good now, anyway," Kaiser said. "The district is negotiating with Educational Support Personnel [non-teaching employees] about salaries and benefits for non-certified employees, which includes the drivers.
"There are so many funding uncertainties and questions about whether we'll even continue busing, though," he said. "We're trying to work out their complaints through other avenues."
Board member Delia Armstrong-Busby concurred with Kaiser and Teja's position -- that the school board is too busy trying to figure out what to do about the budget deficit. She agreed with Kaiser's contention that the timing is bad for a vote on the drivers' request.
"If the mill levy override doesn't pass next November, we're going to have to look at the big picture in terms of reductions," she said. "That may mean privatization of some services, including busing."
After six months of board non-response, Church has petitioned the American Civil Liberties Union for help in resolving the dispute.
"D-11 has recognized the teachers' union for 25 years," he said, "and drivers should have the same right to organize as the teachers. The problem, obviously, is that the drivers aren't as politically powerful as the teachers. It's a lot easier to replace bus drivers than teachers.
"Important decisions need to be made in the next few weeks," Church concluded. "If the board continues to ignore us and the drivers think their problems are serious enough to warrant a walk-out, that's what they'll have to do. That's totally up to the drivers, though."
The drivers interviewed declined to say whether a strike or other job action was planned.
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