Pa School Bus Drivers Cut Ties With Union

07.11.14 | Sarah Harnisch

School bus drivers in Pennsylvania may have dealt a deep financial blow to a local union after voting overwhelmingly to cut ties.

Nearly 90 percent of drivers from the Gateway School District voted to withdraw from Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1729 in a June 27 secret ballot election. The vote means that the union will lose out on dues money from the 105 drivers employed by the district.

Local 1729 has been hemorrhaging members over the past 10 years and had just 130 dues-paying members in 2013, down from nearly 240 in 2009, according to federal labor filings. The union had hoped that the Gateway District, which is located in the Pittsburgh suburb of Monroeville, would reverse the trend.

ATU enjoyed a unique advantage in the battle over unionization. In July 2013 the district switched contract providers for school bus service. The new provider, Student Transportation of America, hired a majority of its workforce from a previously unionized contractor and immediately recognized ATU as the driver’s sole bargaining agent.

The union may have enjoyed support from the company, but not the workers. The bus drivers petitioned the National Labor Relations Board, a federal arbiter that oversees unionization, for a secret ballot election to oust the union four times between July and May 2014. All but three of the 105 employees eligible to vote signed the fourth petition, according to the National Right To Work Foundation, which represented the employees in the dispute. The NLRB approved the election in June.

ATU repeatedly stymied the push for an election, contesting that a vote should not take place until the union had time to close a deal. Union officials did their best to appease the drivers. The ATU, which is a member of the AFL-CIO, waived dues payments for the disgruntled drivers until it had secured a contract, according to a Pennsylvania ATU official.

“It is easy to see why Transit Union bosses repeatedly blocked these bus drivers’ requests for a secret-ballot election,” NRTWF president Mark Mix said in a statement.

In 2013 the union collected more than $70,000 in dues, about $550 per member, and spent about $30,000 on ATU salaries. Unionizing the Gateway drivers could have boosted dues payments by as much as $58,000 for the union, an 80 percent increase, and help balance the books. The union spent $10,000 more than it took in in 2013 and its total assets fell more than 40 percent since 2009.

The ATU official, who requested anonymity because she did not have permission to speak to the press, said that the vote hurt the union’s future plans, but it does not threaten its operations.

“Any loss of dues is a problem but we survived this whole year without them paying,” the union official said.

NRTW’s Mix said that the union’s disappointment is a win for workers.

“As a result of the decertification victory, these bus drivers will now be free to negotiate their own terms and conditions of employment, and be rewarded on their individual merit,” he said in a statement.