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With a month to go before school starts in Cumberland, school bus company won’t negotiate contract in good faith, say workers



We want to make sure we get them to school safely, that they’re protected and we’re protected, because that’s what it’s all about. We drive the most precious cargo in the world. We need an agreement with this company before school starts at the end of August.

School bus drivers, monitors and bus aides employed by Durham School Services held a rally outside of Cumberland Public High School on Thursday afternoon. The workers, who service Cumberland Public Schools, Blackstone Valley Prep and Providence Mayoral Academy, formed their union with UFCW Local 328 in September 2019 to address critical issues that impact both safety and service for their communities.

For years, say the workers, they have witnessed “a revolving door of employment, which has led to a number of safety concerns including under staffing, drivers often having to operate buses without essential monitors on board and bus crowding which leads to disruptions in service for our communities.”

The negotiating team has been trying to get a contract for nine months, but Durham School Services, said Domenic Pontarelli, Secretary Treasurer of UFCW Local 328, “has not bargained in good faith. As of today, we have negotiated eight times and the company has cancelled 12 times.”

“We met with today, on Zoom, to talk about safety issues,” continued Pontarelli, “and nothing came out of that.” Now, with less than a month before school is scheduled to start, the workers have no contract, and no idea what the company’s policies regarding COVID-19, cleaning, health care and social distancing are.

“We want to make sure we get them to school safely, that they’re protected and we’re protected, because that’s what it’s all about,” said Patricia St Pierre, bus driver/trainer at Durham School Services, and one of the members of the negotiating team. “We drive the most precious cargo in the world. We need an agreement with this company before school starts at the end of August.”

Due to the pandemic, workers face added responsibilities, changes in working conditions, and additional hazards and risks to both workers and children. The workers find it “disappointing” that Durham’s negotiator is offering:

  • No improvements in wages
  • No improvements in safety or attendance bonuses
  • No extended paid sick leave in the event workers test positive for COVID-19

These proposals would keep bus monitors stuck at only $11.22 an hour and would keep bus drivers earning below the standards here in Rhode Island. Low wages leads to high turnover and under-staffing that leads to disruptions in service for our communities.

National Express, the parent company of Durham School Services, earned record-breaking profits in 2019 amounting to over $300 million.

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“We have attempted to secure future negotiating dates with Durham so they can respond to the important concerns of their employees before the start of the school year,” say workers in a press release. “However, Durham has refused to meet through virtual meetings the entire month of July and has only agreed to one date in August. We find their lack of urgency deeply troubling as we approach the reopening of school.”

On Wednesday, July 22nd, elected officials in Cumberland, Rhode Island delivered a signed letter to Michael Goddard, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for Durham School Services, urging the company to “come to an agreement which offers a better future for your employees and ensures both student and worker safety as we prepare to reopen schools.”

The elected officials who signed the letter include Senator Ryan Pearson, Cumberland Mayor Jeffrey Mutter, Representative Alex Marszalkowski, Representative Mia Ackerman, Town Council President E Craig Dwyer, Town Council President Pro-Tem Lisa Beaulieu, Town Councilor Michael Kinch, Town Councilor Stephanie Gemski, School Committee Chair Paul DiModica, School Committee Member Karen Freedman and School Committee Member Jennifer Bernardo.

More video:

Vincent Auger, bus driver at Durham School Services and member of the negotiating team:

Domenic Pontarelli:

Senator Valerie Lawson (Democrat, District 14, East Providence, Pawtucket):

Domenic Pontarelli:

Patrick Crowley, secretary-treasurer of the RI AFL-CIO:

Sam Marvin:

Representative James McLaughlin (Democrat, District 57, Central Falls)

UFCW Local 328 is proud to represent over 11,000 hard-working men and women located in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Southeastern Massachusetts in a myriad of industries including retail food, institutional food, school transportation, healthcare, banking and food manufacturing.

About the Author

Steve Ahlquist is Uprise RI's co-founder and lead reporter. He has covered human rights, social justice, progressive politics and environmental news for nearly a decade.