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|Parents Dismayed When Favorite Bus Driver, a Union Activist, Is Abruptly Fired|
|April 27, 2004|
During the seven years Andre LaGrande worked as a school bus driver, he grew close to the students on his route—attending their football games, graduation parties, and even touring colleges with them. Parents enjoyed peace of mind when they sent their children on Andre’s bus, knowing that the students listened to him, respected him, and behaved well when he was behind the wheel. And so it came as a shock to Andre, as well as to the parents and kids on his route, when Durham School Services abruptly fired him on January 28, 2004.
Andre began driving with Durham in St. Louis, Missouri in the fall of 2002. Early on he noticed that management was not responsive to the drivers’ concerns with the safety of the buses. When one of Andre’s co-workers, Lottie Bell, noticed that her bus was jerking, she alerted her managers. In spite of her frequent complaints, Lottie’s managers chose not to inspect her bus and insisted she continue to drive it. During one of her routes, the drive shaft—the part of the bus that rotates to power the engine—fell out as she turned a corner. Fortunately, no one was hurt. However, given Durham’s bus safety record, the inattentiveness of management is cause for concern. When one Durham facility in St. Louis underwent a Missouri Highway Patrol inspection in 2001, 28 percent of the buses failed to pass, and in the following year, 48 percent of the buses failed to pass inspection.
Though Andre loved driving the kids, it was important for him to work for a company that “felt like a family”—where managers gave drivers the support they needed when problems arose. But Andre quickly realized this was not the case at Durham: “I went in and my first day, I could feel the tension that was there…I truly believe that’s why we lost all those co-workers…they were running through drivers like we come a dime a dozen.” Indeed, Durham suffers a high turnover of drivers at many of its facilities. In St. Louis alone, Andre estimates that the company lost 50 workers between September 2003 and February 2004.
Andre and his co-workers think turnover could be reduced if Durham paid a living wage and provided healthcare benefits. Currently, managers at the St. Louis facility do not allow any of the drivers to work enough hours to be considered full-time, and so none are eligible for benefits. They also believe turnover is a symptom of the lack of respect given to the drivers by management. As one of his co-workers, Lottie Bell, put it: “[The managers] talk to you like you was animals.”
Unfortunately, Durham’s employees endured these working conditions long before Andre began driving there. In 2001, the bus drivers sought to confront their problems with the company collectively, and voted to form a union with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. The drivers organized with the hope of winning a union contract that would enable them to earn a living wage, receive good benefits, and address their concerns with safety. Since this vote, however, three years of unproductive bargaining has drivers concerned that Durham may never negotiate a union contract.
Despite his exasperation with the contract talks, Andre remained passionate in his union activism. So much so that in January 2004, he traveled to Racine, Wisconsin, to support the efforts of Durham drivers there who were trying to organize a union. Last fall, Durham settled charges with the National Labor Relations Board, the federal agency that investigates and remedies unfair labor practices, on 12 charges of harassment, intimidation, surveillance and coercion of its bus drivers during their attempt to form a union in 2001. As a result of the settlement, the results of the 2001 election were thrown out, and the workers will have the chance to vote again.
The day Andre returned to work after his trip to Wisconsin, he was fired. Prior to his dismissal, Andre had a perfect record with the company. While he is distraught at losing his job, he believes the students he drove suffered a greater loss: “I seen one of my parents yesterday at the store, and she told me that her granddaughter has been crying because I haven’t been her bus driver…But this company, they say that experienced drivers build relationships with the kids and that those are the drivers that they try to keep…why would you take that away from me, away from my students?”
Durham’s dismissal of Andre was not unique, as firing union activists is a common tactic used by employers. One recent study of 400 organizing drives in 1998-99 found that 25 percent of employers fire at least one employee.1 In a similar report, John Logan concluded from his research that anti-union consultants advise employers to illegally fire union activists because “the ‘chilling effect’ created by sacking activists can halt a union campaign in its tracks.”2 Not surprisingly, Andre’s termination has generated fear among his co-workers, and Teamster organizers report that Durham is using his termination as an example to their drivers across the country.
Despite this setback to his efforts to win a union contract, Andre refuses to back down: “I’m going back to Wisconsin—I’m going back to California. Wherever there’s a Durham School Services, I’m going…I don’t care where it’s at—I’m going to approach every last driver of every last Durham School Services and explain to them what kind of company they work for…if I can make a difference, I gotta get out there and make a difference.”
After Andre was fired, the Teamsters filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board. In March of 2004, soon after the charge was filed, Durham agreed to rehire Andre. The company also promised to clear Andre’s record of its charges against him. However, the threatening message Durham sent to its bus drivers who want to organize cannot be erased. And there’s still no resolution for the St. Louis Durham drivers waiting for a contract.
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1 Kate Bronfenbrenner, “Uneasy Terrain: The Impact of Capital Mobility on Workers, Wages and Union Organizing,” U.S. Trade Deficit Review Commission, 2000.
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