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Precious Cargo

School bus drivers try to raise their visibility--and their standard of living

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By Ben Joravsky

For almost two years Walter Blount was on time every day for work, which was busing kids to and from school--in the rain, sleet, and snow when he had to. Then one day last month he caught a wicked strain of the flu. They hooked him to an IV at Cook County Hospital until the bug ran its course.

His payback for those years of loyal service to the company? "I lost two days of pay on my check," says Blount. "Since I don't get health benefits, I was stuck with medical bills and less money to pay for it."

Such is the lot of the school bus driver assigned to the Chicago Board of Education. Public school drivers say they work full-time hours and shoulder important responsibilities, yet are treated like part-time menials. It's no wonder the drivers are talking union.

"We're carting some very important cargo with these children, and yet with the money they pay us a lot of drivers live on the edge of poverty," says Shirley Jones, a veteran driver for the Robinson Bus Service. "It's time the industry changes its attitude toward drivers."

According to the Board of Education, busing has become a multimillion-dollar business, as 52 companies are paid to ship over 50,000 children to various magnet, special education, and less crowded neighborhood schools. Despite heavy organizing efforts, only 700 of the school system's 2,000 drivers belong to a union. About 450 of the organized drivers work for Robinson, the others for Willett Motor Coach and Neal's Bus Company. None of the drivers receive health or pension benefits, and some make no more than $7 an hour.

In 1979, drivers at Robinson, one of the largest companies in the system, voted against unionizing. Four years later they voted for the union, but the company appealed, arguing that some of the voters were ineligible. "In 1988 we won the appeals, but they had outlasted us," says Jones. "The union that was representing us had all but forgotten us. We didn't have many original drivers left. We were right where we started."

Two years ago, Jones and other Robinson drivers voted to be represented by the Service Employees' International Union. To the union, the drivers were ripe for organizing. "Years ago drivers were retirees or housewives. Now roughly 70 percent are key breadwinners for their families," says SEIU organizer Bill Silver. "But the industry still treats them like temporary workers."

As the drivers tell the story, the companies are out of touch with the realities of the job. "We get paid for a route time that has no basis in reality," says Jones. "The companies estimate how much time they think our routes will take to drive, but their estimates are based on dry runs in off-rush-hour traffic without children aboard. It's a lot different when you have kids on the bus and you're in rush hour traffic and it's snowing. But for most of the companies, they only pay you based on that estimate, no matter how much time you spend on the road."

Jones's longevity is unusual in a field where few drivers last for more than five years. "I started way back when in 1979," she says. "My twins had just turned four and I was ready to go back to work."

Like all drivers, she took a training course and went through a background check. "I soon discovered that it's nothing like they lead you to believe. The state looks at school buses as being the safest vehicles on the street, but I don't believe that's the case--not in the city anyway, which wasn't made for buses. We have to slip in and out of tight corners and small streets. We're the most disrespected vehicle on the street. No one wants to be behind a bus. Drivers are always trying to slip around us. And that's dangerous.

"Plus, it's a more important job than people realize because of the children. It used to be when a child left home the next person he saw was a teacher. Now many of them see a bus driver. I'm not saying we're more important than the teachers. I'm saying we're the guardians when they're on the bus, and some children are on that bus for over two hours a day. I treat my children with respect and love. I learn their names right away. I say 'Good morning' when they board. Sometimes they're like adults--they're irritated or tired and don't want to talk. So I say it again, 'Good morning.' Then they say, 'Good morning, Miss Jones.'"

The biggest change she's seen over the years is in the attitude of the drivers; many would like to make driving a career. "I've had lots of jobs since I got out of Harrison High School [in 1983], and in some ways this might be the best," says Blount. "I like to drive, I like the freedom--there's no boss hanging over me, watching everything I do. I like working with the kids. I get up at four in the morning, but I don't mind that. I drive to the garage over at 4055 S. Ashland and pick up my bus and get my first kid, who lives on 96th."

All told, he picks up 18 children and drops them off at two special education schools by 8:25. "As much as I like the work, it's hard to stay on if I can't get benefits for my family," he says. "I think the company would want drivers to stay. I think they'd want everyone to have the kind of loyalty Miss Jones has. It's better for the kids. But how can you stay when you've got no health benefits?"

The board's bus operations are overseen by a school board employee named Tim Martin, who did not respond for comment. In the past, school officials have expressed sympathy for the drivers while insisting there's no money to be spared for benefits or higher wages. They estimate it would cost about $1.8 million to provide health benefits for drivers--much more than the schools could afford. After all, the argument goes, the system is for educating children, not providing adults with decent jobs.

Yet SEIU argues that the drivers represent a huge pool of underused talent that might benefit the schools. In the down periods between routes, they might be used as security guards or aides. With a few drivers to work the playgrounds, the schools might even be able to bring back recess. "Why not put the drivers to work?" says Silver. "Why not take advantage of the experience they have working with kids?"

At the very least, SEIU argues, safety concerns require the board to adopt a "code of conduct" for bus companies. "In the strange world of board contracting, there's a whole lot of wheeling and dealing among bus operations," says Silver. "There's a lot of subcontracting, where one company low-bids to get a route and then farms it out to an even smaller company. You have companies going in and out of business all the time. It can get cutthroat. We had a rally at the board and some of the companies showed up to offer our drivers more money to join their firms. But this sort of wheeling and dealing hurts service. Each company should provide the same basic benefits and wages. Each company should pay drivers for the time they spend on the route. The companies should have safety committees."

The larger bus companies like Robinson would be penalized for treating their employees with more respect, the union argues. "About 80 percent of the companies in the system do no more than 20 bus routes," says Silver. "We're talking about ma-and-pa operations who will say they can't pay health benefits. Well, when we negotiate with Robinson they say, 'How can we pay health when the other companies don't? That puts us at a disadvantage on bidding for routes.' And they have a point. Robinson refused to concede health benefits because they said it would cost an extra $200,000 to $300,000 and they would have to increase their bid and probably lose routes."

Eventually, the drivers hope to force the board to pay for health coverage. They're marshaling political support from congressmen Bobby Rush, Danny Davis, and Luis Gutierrez and from the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who was instrumental in convincing Robinson to give its drivers a raise of $1.50 an hour last fall. But Jackson has been reluctant to press too hard, for fear of driving black-owned operations like Robinson out of business.

"That's why it's so important to have a code of conduct all companies must subscribe to--so no one is at a disadvantage for doing what's right," says Jones. "But I think a lot of these companies aren't being serious about protecting their employees. I think they're waiting for the job market to change--for unemployment to go up and the next wave of out-of-work truck drivers to sweep in. You have to ask yourself if that's a good attitude for the system to have. Do you want to have to depend on bad times to hire people cheap to transport your kids? I think the job's more important than that." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Walter Blount, Shirley Jones photo by Bruce Powell.

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