PALMER — Members of the union representing Mat-Su school bus drivers, attendants and monitors have voted to authorize a strike if negotiations on a contract agreement fall through.
The local Teamsters union representing school bus staff said Tuesday the nearly unanimous vote came in response to “flippant negotiation tactics” from Durham School Services. The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District contracted with Durham in 2021 to provide bus service to a region the size of West Virginia.
Durham has struggled to provide regular bus service since taking over the district transportation contract at the start of the school year, when a problem-plagued rollout earned community and district censure.
Now the company faces the possibility of drivers and other workers walking off the job if the two sides can’t come to an agreement on a contract that’s been under negotiation for months.
Nearly all the roughly 180 Durham bus employees represented by Teamsters Local 959 — or 98% — voted to authorize a strike, union officials say.
The vote reflects a group of employees “very motivated” to improve working conditions, said Derek Musto, an organizer and business agent with the Anchorage-based union who’s been involved in the negotiations. He said problems with Durham generally range from a lack of communication from managers and “substandard” bus equipment to inadequate ice scrapers supplied at the bus yard.
“Nobody wants to strike,” Musto said Wednesday. “Our negotiating committee met with Durham yesterday. The next date is tomorrow. There is no additional negotiation scheduled at this time. So as of right now, the ball’s in Durham’s court.”
The vote marks the first time in Musto’s memory that Mat-Su drivers and other staff have voted to strike, he said.
A spokesman for National Express, Durham’s parent company, said in an email that officials there “remain optimistic” the two sides can agree on a contract with no disruption in service.
“Our priority is getting our students to school safely, on time, and ready to learn each day,” National Express spokesman Edward Flavin wrote in the email.
The company was informed of the strike authorization vote, Flavin said, adding the union members did not vote to strike.
The company continues to “negotiate and bargain in good faith toward a new labor agreement” for the drivers and monitors represented by the Teamsters, he said. “We respect our drivers, monitors and their Union representatives and look forward to working together toward a new labor agreement.”
Mat-Su school district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey emailed a statement saying the district got word Tuesday about the strike authorization vote: “A bus driver strike is not good for kids and not good for our families. We are encouraging both Durham and the local Teamsters to return to the negotiating table and resolve this contract and keep buses on the road.”
Bus drivers, monitors and attendants have been working without a contract since Durham took over last summer. Company officials in a September interview said they were “in good faith” honoring a contract brokered with First Student, the district’s previous transportation provider. Negotiations have been underway since July, according to Teamsters officials.
The union contends Durham has yet to fix many of the problems it started with. Vacant positions and turnover of former longtime drivers also remain ongoing issues, they say.
Mat-Su school families continue to see rolling bus cancellations due to driver shortages. The Anchorage School District grappled with similar problems this school year but regular service resumed in December.
As of this week, the union had filed four cases before the National Labor Relations Board alleging refusal to bargain or bargaining in bad faith as well as refusing to furnish information, according to a federal database. The cases were among more than 600 filed nationally with the board against Durham.
Durham received a 10-year contract worth at least $188 million and as much as $220 million to take over from longtime bus provider First Student. Durham, which also serves the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, is a subsidiary of National Express LLC, which operates more than 22,500 school buses across more than 550 school districts in 34 states and three Canadian provinces.