Bus drivers in Alaska’s second-largest school district went on strike Tuesday after transporting Mat-Su students to school, leaving families responsible for picking up kids across the district at the end of the day.
The Teamsters Local 959 union announced the strike after drivers failed to come to a contract agreement with Durham School Services, a transportation contractor for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District. The strike created a major transportation problem in a sprawling district that enrolls roughly 19,000 students and covers a region about the size of West Virginia.
Mat-Su district officials said school will remain open during the strike. They said families will be responsible for taking students at nearly all buildings to and from school, as well as arranging transportation to after-school activities.
“We are disappointed to report that the local Teamsters Union, representing bus drivers and attendants working for Durham School Services, chose to strike with no advanced notice to the District after delivering students to school this morning,” district officials said in a statement Tuesday.
Patrick FitzGerald, Local 959’s political coordinator, said Durham made its final offer Monday, and the bus drivers, attendants and monitors working for the company quickly rejected it.
“The strike vote was approved by 98% of our bargaining unit,” he said. “So we had 98% of a 185-plus-member unit vote to strike.”
FitzGerald emphasized that union officials made sure students were left with responsible adults Tuesday morning before the strike started. He also said they understood the strain the strike placed on parents in the district.
“It’s frustrating for families and parents who now have to pick their kids up from school,” he said. “But that’s where the company put us and they had to push us to the limit to make this happen, so we had to bring attention to it.”
Durham’s parent company, Illinois-based National Express, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying the union “made the decision to abandon the students at school and then strike.” The statement did not mention any other offer being made to the union Tuesday after the strike started.
The company said it’s working with the district on staffing plans for upcoming school days, and some employees planned to continue to work despite the strike vote. It said its final offer included 8% to 14% raises, a $1,500 bonus upon ratification of an agreement and fully paid weather cancellation days. It said bargaining will continue, but the union has rejected bringing in a federal mediator.
“We are prepared to meet and bargain with the Union to bring an end to this disruption,” said the company’s statement.
FitzGerald said the strike will end once Durham provides the union’s bargaining unit with an acceptable offer.
“We want it to be resolved, but we’re willing to go as long as we can for our members to get a fair contract,” he said.
Besides pay, he told the Associated Press, that the drivers have several safety concerns, including inadequate heaters and headlights, nonworking windshield wipers and having to use their phones as flashlights to find their assigned buses in an unlit lot.
In a message to families late Tuesday afternoon, Mat-Su district officials said, due to the strike, there will be no bus service on Wednesday for all schools except Glacier View, Su-Valley Jr./Sr. High School, Talkeetna Elementary, Trapper Creek Elementary and Willow Elementary. It said if students cannot make it to school, they can make up any work missed.