No new offer in Mat-Su school bus drivers’ strike as parents’ anger builds

people wave signs on a picket line
Mat-Su bus drivers protest for a better contract offer on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (Courtesy Teamsters Local 959)

A midday school bus driver strike that sent Mat-Su Borough families scrambling to pick up their students Tuesday afternoon continued on Wednesday, as parents turned to social media to vent their frustration.

The bus contractor, Durham School Services, had made no new contract offer to the drivers’ union by Wednesday afternoon, according to Patrick FitzGerald, the political coordinator for the union, Teamsters Local 959. The union rejected the last offer on Monday, and 98% of the nearly 200 union members working for the company approved the strike, he said.

The Mat-Su district said schools will remain open during the strike, but there will be no bus service to nearly all school buildings. They said families must figure out how to get their children to and from school. Mat-Su serves roughly 19,000 students across a region about the size of West Virginia.

Meanwhile, there’s no end in sight to the strike.

Both sides allege underhanded tactics

Union members continued to maintain a picket line at Durham’s bus facility in Wasilla on Wednesday, said Fitzgerald.

Both sides in the labor dispute alleged underhanded tactics by the other. 

Durham’s owner, Illinois-based National Express, said on Wednesday it was ready to resume talks but claimed union officials had repeatedly ignored requests to negotiate or involve a federal mediator, with “no dates” offered by the union to resume negotiations.

“Contrary to the Company’s cooperation and determination to reach a resolution, the Union has thrown up roadblocks along the way, culminating in a midday strike to cause the greatest disruption, inconvenience, and potential danger to the families that rely on student transportation,” officials wrote in a statement. “In fact, many employees learned of the strike when returning to the yard after the morning drop-offs, and they told us that they were not given an opportunity to vote on the Company’s final offer.”

Asked about those allegations, FitzGerald said the union had reached out to every member working at Durham before Monday’s vote authorizing the strike. 

According to FitzGerald, Durham sought out its proposed federal mediator through improper channels, which union management was reviewing Wednesday. On some occasions, he said, the union had flown a Fairbanks-based negotiator to Anchorage for appointed talks with Durham – which Durham then canceled, wasting union funds.

Families air frustrations

The district’s Facebook post Tuesday evening announcing schools staying open during the ongoing strike drew more than 150 comments, many from parents and students. Some were mad. Others, like Rachel Hart, were frustrated.

“This was a frustrating day,” wrote Hart. “As we were standing outside waiting for the bus to pick up my son- the message came through there was a strike- he missed his day as there was no time to figure out an alternative and still make it to pick up at two other schools.”

Many people questioned the district’s selection of Durham as a bus contractor, as well as its refusal to declare remote learning days as it did during December’s massive snowstorms.

Durham School Services is a new transportation contractor for Mat-Su schools, its 10-year contract started last year. 

“It’s been an absolute disaster having Durham as our bus service,” wrote Kristin Renee McBride. “They aren’t even located in Alaska. They bid for a contract they had no business bidding for and had no ability to uphold. Fire them!”

Denise Arndt wrote: “When the roads are not too bad, you choose remote learning….no buses and you choose in person. That decision is absolutely ridiculous and makes no sense.”

A few commenters blamed the union for the strike.

“This childish stunt was a great opportunity to show and explain to my teenage children the worthlessness of unions and union participation and that only uneducated unskilled clowns have to pay a union boss to advocate for them in the private labor market,” wrote Jarred King.

Destinyy Wideman, who said she’s a Durham driver and union member, said the strike happened after student drop-off Tuesday so children were not left waiting at bus stops.

“Many of us are upset because people feel like we abandoned the kids, but of the two choices, we would much rather leave students at school than in the streets,” Wideman wrote.

Some people mentioned safety concerns with Durham buses reported by the Associated Press. AP said those issues, reported by drivers to the union, included inadequate heaters and headlights, non-working windshield wipers and having to use their phones as flashlights to find their assigned buses in an unlit lot.

Commenter Katie Mann, who said she attends school in the district, said her bus driver told her she’d personally seen four Durham buses with damaged brakes.

“As a high schooler I would rather be late home than be on a bus with broken brakes, or a bus that was neglected,” Mann wrote.

The company statement on Wednesday addressed some concerns about its fleet and equipment, saying that almost all of Durham’s 179 buses are 2022 models. Block heaters for diesel buses are on order, according to the statement, but have been delayed by supply-chain issues. In addition, it said, drivers have been brought in early to offer time to correct any cold-weather-related issues with buses before leaving Durham’s yard.

Several Facebook commenters said they planned to attend a 6 p.m. Wednesday meeting of the borough’s school board. FitzGerald said union members will also be present.

Chris Klint is a web producer and breaking news reporter at Alaska Public Media. Reach him at Read more about Chris here.

Previous articleHead of Alaska police organization calls for consistent policies across state
Next articleCongresswoman Peltola hires Josh Revak, a Republican former rival, to run her Alaska office