by Renee LaFarge
(written approx 1984)
Members of United Transportation Union Local 1741 have provided busing service to the children of San Francisco for the past 20 years. Over these years we have solidified our union, won better contracts and have played an active role in labor and community struggles of the last decade. Although this paper will focus primarily on our first attempt to involve the news media, parent groups and the education community in launching our student safety campaign, it will be important to have some understanding of the environment we must function in to keep our jobs and union intact.
All of the school bus drivers who work for the San Francisco public schools belong to the United Transportation Union local 1741. We all work out of one yard, have one seniority list and elect all our union officials from our own ranks. Our jobs pro- vide us with a certain amount of flexibility (split shift), independence (we are out on our own all day), and lots of vacation time (When school is closed we can collect unemployment). In order to become a school bus driver in the state of California In order one must have an initial forty hours of classroom time and behind the wheel time, pass a first aid exam and be certified by the California Highway Patrol every four years.
The fact that we are employed by a private contractor who is contracted by the San Francisco Unified School District has to some extent forced us into a dual struggle to preserve our jobs and our union. The dual nature of our struggle comes about because we work for and have a contract with a private company who is contracted by the school district to provide busing for the city's children. Our local has a contract with Laidlaw Transit and Laidlaw has a separate contract with the San Francisco Unified School District, which can in some instances supersede our contract. How this contract is put out for bid and what establishes a qualified bidder to provide the service is in the hands of the members of the Board of Education.
Not only does the Board of Education determine which company will get the very lucrative busing contract every three years it also decides what language will go out in the bid specifications. What that means for us every three years ... is, will the Board decide whether to put in language that will protect our jobs and benefits regardless of who gets the contract. This protective language means that any other contractor who bids on the contract In San Francisco must take into account in their bid our wages and benefits. Over the years there have been several attempts at busting our union by attempting to eliminate or weaken this language. The fact that we have not yet been able to get permanent job language puts us in a vulnerable position in terms of our livelihood, all the gains we've made and union's power to act on our behalf. In essence, we walk a tightrope ... we perform a vital public. service for the City of San Francisco, but this service is carried out through a private contractor.
We have two arenas in which we carry out our struggle. One is with the company we work for and the other is with the School Board. The chain of command is set up in such a way that when a problem occurs with service or with a particular driver, or a school bus accident occurs, the information goes from our employer to the SFUSD Transportation Department to the Superintendent of Schools as well am School Board Members. The point here is that our internal problems travel to parties outside the company which employs us to the people responsible for awarding the contract to that company. It is also important to note that in the contract that Laidlaw Transit has with the SFUSD the District has the power to remove any driver from service without due process and without regard to our contract with the company. They can and do by- pass our grievance procedure leaving us with no recognized legitimate recourse to address the problem.
Our story starts about two and one-half years ago as we were preparing for our upcoming contract negotiations. This was the first time that we would be negotiating a contract with Laidlaw Transit (after a recent buy-out from ARA) and we were anticipating trouble. There were already organizing efforts under way at our yard. Our contract committee was meeting to get input for changes that needed to be made. We had an outreach committee made up of about 25 drivers. This committee centralized all the labor and community organizations that we would need to contact for support. should we be out on strike in September. We had a speakers' bureau covering a wide spectrum of organizations, unions and church groups that we wanted to prepare in advance should we need their assistance and support.
Energy was running high and there was a great sense of camaraderie among drivers. An event was about to unfold that would change the course we had been following and challenge our ability to co-opt a potentially dangerous situation. We were soon to learn that Diane Hurrera a parent of a three year old special education child made a public complaint against one of our drivers at a regular school board meeting. These meetings are broadcast on the radio and the press is always in attendance. One of our drivers was alleged to have improperly dropped off a child by handing him to a stranger rather than to the teacher at the after school YMCA program. It was said that no harm care to the child because the alleged stranger took him into the building where he was to go. Mrs. Hurrera appeared at the Board meeting with her lawyer and David Collins of the Kevin Collins foundation (This foundation was created out of one of the most intensive community efforts this City has seen in search of a missing child, Kevin Collins. To this day he has not been found.). Mr.Collins made several derogatory statements linking the issue of child abusers with those people who work with children, like teachers and school bus drivers. Mrs. Hurrera claimed that she had been trying to get some assistance from the school district with her problem since November and that she had been given the run around. She was also told by the District's Transportation Department that her concerns could not be met because of our union contract.
This heated School Board meeting was the first time that our drivers had any knowledge of the problem. We were all in a state of shock. We all had been focused on our own upcoming contract negotiations and now we were confronted with a situation that would affect us all, and come back to haunt us. Our outreach committee met the next day and four decisions were made. The first that we would try to arrange a meeting with Mrs. Hurrera and the second, to create a pamphlet on the issue of safety for the city's children. Third, we would create a Safety Council to oversee all the work we would carry out in this area and four, we would prepare a presentation to be delivered at the next School Board meeting two weeks away.
Meanwhile drivers were very concerned and frightened, Almost 200 of us came to a meeting called to discuss the situation, The most important message conveyed at our meeting was that we are not bad people and that even if the allegation was true it was a mistake that any one of us could have made. We understood that a finger pointed at one of us implicated all of us.
After the disastrous School Board meeting we didn't even get a chance to catch our breath when the TV news people were knocking at our door, They interviewed two of our drivers and Mrs. Hurrera and presented the allegations as facts on the six o'clock news. Fortunately we were able to meet with Mrs. Hurrera within a couple of days after her appearance at the School Board meeting, before the television interview. Needless to say, we were all apprehensive and had no idea how it would turn out. Our meeting was successful because we were able to unite with her around safety issues that she was concerned about. We also shared her frustration with the Transportation Department's inability to solve problems and their lack of concern. We let her know that for many years drivers had been asking the District to improve the handling of special education students and to provide us with more information regarding the students we transport. They were also unresponsive to our requests. We agreed to meet again and enlisted her support in working with us on our pamphlet which we titled SAFETY IS EVERYONE'S RESPONSIBILITY. She asked if we would help formulate some proposals that her parent group could present to the district regarding the special needs of special education children. An apprehensive bond had been formed: we turned a potential enemy into a possible friend.
By the time of the next School Board meeting, two weeks later, we were well prepared with our own response. This was to be the first time that we would have to publicly defend ourselves. Our outreach committee selected two speakers to address the School Board. The speakers focused on our concern for the safe transportation of all school children and we introduced our now published pamphlet, SAFETY IS EVERYONE'S RESPONSIBILITY. The following are excerpts from our presentation. "This pamphlet represents the efforts of many San Francisco school bus drivers who were concerned about the need to Improve transportation for the children of San Francisco. Our pamphlet includes many safety tips for parents and children, with a specific emphasis on the special needs of children who are bused to and from school. We told the Board that our first run produced eight thousand pamphlets in English and that we had in progress the production of six additional languages and braille. Our initial plan was to introduce and distribute our pamphlet in September for the start of the school year but we thought that this was a more appropriate time to share our concerns." At the same time we asked that the Transportation Department join forces with us in the distribution process in September so that all the parents of children who are bused to and from school would be sure to receive it. We also let the Board members know that we would be interested in participating in a council that was forming on the issue of safe transportation for San Francisco school children. We did not receive any response from the School Board at this meeting. We left copies of our pamphlets with all the School Board members.
We left the meeting with a clearer sense of purpose. We had accomplished several of our initial goals...We let the education community know that our union and drivers were concerned about safety and that we were doing something about it. We enlisted the support of several departments within the SFUSD who in the past have not come out in support of us. We wrote letters to every Department in the SFUSD, whose support or permission would be necessary to implement our safety program. We always included our safety pamphlet and explained our goals. We began to receive letters of support and encouragement for our work because as everyone stated,"safety is everyone's responsibility". In effect, through our Safety Council, we established a buffer zone around us to protect ourselves from attack as well as having initiated a safety campaign that we would now take public.
It was June. School was drawing to a close and our contract negotiations were about to start. Everyone had an eye towards September because that was when all the promises were made by all the parties involved to iron out the burps in the system to insure that the same mistakes would not be made in the future. Our Safety Council went into full swing. We began by expanding our Initial conception of our pamphlet to include a safety program in the schools with the new students coming into the busing system. We targeted September as a critical time for us and to this end we declared September 7th through the 9th as School Bus Safety Days and took a booth at the San Francisco Fair.
Our booth was a tremendous success both in terms of exposure in the community and as an activity for many drivers to get involved in. Our booth was constructed like a school bus. We had activities for children to do, games they could play, and a driver magician and clown. The highlight of the moment was the appearance of Miss Nancy from "Romper Room" who came to promote school bus safety (children were lined up waiting to see her - "Romper Room"is a long running early morning children's program on television.). In conjunction with her appearance she also had a guest bus driver on her show and advertised School Bus Safety Days, our pamphlet and our booth and her appearance at the Fair.
Over 50 drivers took part in creating and staffing our booth and planning all the different events around it. In addition to all the focus on children we of course had our pamphlets there in seven languages and braille, along with other material on school bus safety. We had just produced our first video, Behind The Wheel , and we had it running day and night at the booth. We made school bus pins to be given out. There were several thousand children walking around with yellow pins with a school bus in the middle and in a circle around the pin it read ..."UNION Drivers = Safe Transportation, United Transportation Union 1741."
When we returned to work in September we were riding high on the success of our efforts at the Fair and a difficult but successful contract negotiation. Meanwhile we were getting requests from schools, parent groups and children oriented newsletters to have more information on safety issues and to receive our pamphlets. It was at this point that we created our school bus safety program which we could take into the schools. The program was very simple and aimed at children up to the third grade. We created a mascot and called it Bus Bunny. One of our drivers made a fantastic bunny costume. It was Bus Bunny who would conduct the program. We decided to take our first presentation to Charles Drew School in the Hunters Point community. This school had recently been involved in a struggle to re-open and many of our drivers had been involved in supporting that struggle.
The principal of Charles Drew thought it would be a great idea and gave us a lot of support. We used this opportunity to call a press conference. This was not a traditional press conference nor was it called the way a press conference is supposed to be called, but it worked. We thought that now that we had our pamphlet, which was being distributed on a mass scale and a program for children that we would take into the schools, it would be beneficial to broaden our audience.
In order to achieve this we took several approaches and brought together important elements in the educational and political communities and drew them into our picture, and organized a press conference around these elements. First we approached Supervisor Nancy Walker and discussed the need to bring the issue of school bus safety into the public arena. We suggested that a good way to do this would be by declaring a school bus safety week. She agreed to this and the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution declaring November 4th to be the opening of School Bus Safety Week (the week of our press conference). Once we had that in place we asked School Board members to come and participate and Joanne Miller did, along with Olivia Martinet, the Assistant Superintendent in charge of Special Education. We included a driver\parent, union official and the principal of Charles Drew in the program.
The press arrived, took one look at the length of what was to come and said they would stay for only one speaker, period. We spoke with the reporter and explained that the press conference was called to kick off our school bus safety program and bring about a public awareness of school bus safety week (they knew all this from our press release but it seemed to be necessary to re-explain and slow them down). We started things off immediately and hoped for the best. Nancy Walker presented us with a proclamation given to 'groups whose efforts are aimed at improving the lives of our children' and stated that "the San Francisco School Bus Drivers Union is an outstanding example of civic concern at its finest and an organization deeply committed to the safety of our City's youngsters." The remainder of our participants all spoke and the press was still there.
Instead of waiting until the end of the speeches to bring in the children, as we had originally planned, we made an on the spot decision to bring them in during the press conference. They all sat quietly on the floor and waited for the conference to end and the safety program to begin. Even if the press wanted to leave they were now surrounded by small children blocking their way out. The camera rolled and Bus Bunny along with a driver magician and the Bus Bunny Band began a five minute program which included many of the points we covered in our pamphlet. We involved the children in several pretend situations to demonstrate safe riding practices. As the children left they were handed a safety pamphlet and a Bus Bunny sticker. We created a large sticker (drivers did not want to give children pins because they could be dangerous, especially on the bus) with a school bus transformed into a bunny bus. The sticker was in color and said across the top ... BE A SAFE RIDER ... and also had San Francisco School Bus Drivers UTU 1741. We also had a poster enlarged from the sticker so it could be put up in the schools.
Channel 4 put together an interesting 2 minute presentation of our press conference focusing on the safety program and other work we had been doing. It was presented in a very positive light. During school bus safety week we also utilized several free speech messages on Channel 5 and Channel 20. Our safety council received many calls after each message aired. We also began to get requests from schools all over the city to come and put on our safety program for their children. We received numerous letters of support and appreciation from every department within the SFUSD as well as the School Board and Parent Teachers Association for our efforts and concern about student safety. During School Bus Safety week, our pamphlets were distributed to every school in San Francisco that bussed children.
After the press conference was over and our story aired, I decided to call the other two major stations that did not come to the conference. When I spoke with the assignment editor at Channel 7 I was told that they didn't have enough crew because of the story on Humphrey the whale (a whale who mistakenly travelled into the Bay). I reminded him that if there had been a school bus accident at 11:OO am on November 4th, they would have had enough crew to cover it and further, they were the station that originally covered the story back in May when the allegation against us was made. They had promised to follow up and they didn't. The next day Channel 7 aired the Channel 4 tape of our Safety Campaign.
Looking back on this time it is clear that we took many risks that we had never taken before. We were put in a situation where the spotlight was on us, where we could have retreated or reacted purely defensively but instead we chose a path that both established and enhanced our position in the education community. Up until this time there was a certain almost unspoken fear within our union about becoming too visible. There were some reservations about our whole Safety Campaign. It was not always easy to raise new ideas because there was a fear that we would look silly. The Bus Bunny idea was too much for some of us -- it was stepping out too far. The 'political' image of our union would be weakened. Even though we did not all agree on all things, there was a willingness to give new ideas a try. Everyone did the necessary work once decisions were made.
Our union has always been visible and active within the labor community, but not too much outside of that. We had been active on behalf of others' issues when asked, but not just for ourselves. With our safety campaign we took an advocacy position on the issue of safety and we put ourselves forward in a positive light to the public and to ourselves.
Question: Who are the two groups that we fear the most? Answer: Parents and the press... It was felt that we should stay away from direct contact with parents because they might turn on us. Some of our members expressed concern that parents were too broad a group to organize, that those parents who were against bussing would take advantage of a situation to promote reasons for their position, that a lot of parents might be anti-union or just neutral and find reasons to blame problems on our union contract rather than trying to learn how the Transportation Department really works. Although some of what was just described may in fact be true, we learned that parents could be receptive to our needs. We also found that if we clearly understood the issue we were addressing we could maintain our independence and integrity as a union and not submerge our needs to those of another group as some feared we would. This project was a giant step for us one that we will take again.
We all feared the press, We feared our words would be twisted, taken out of context and that we would have to relinquish all control. To some extent all of this is true. When Channel 7 ran the original story on the news, they presented the allegations against us as fact. We know that they did not fully research the facts because no one ever asked us or the driver in question what actually happened. They assumed that Mrs. Hurrera's child was indeed handed to a stranger and that was how they told the story. When they interviewed us as a part of their story they wanted to hear that we had concerns that were compatible with Mrs. Hurrera's. They spoke with two of us: one of us presented a rather typical union response, putting up a shield with a formula "We are always concerned with safety issues," while the other one of us spoke on a more personal, empathetic note, validating some of the issues Mrs. Hurrera was raising. Channel 7 used only the latter in their story.
No one every wanted to deal with the press unless it was a purely "union"\driver issue where pat answers would fill the bill. For example, we would talk with reporters about how it felt to drive a school bus on the opening day of school, when the press often comes around for interviews. We would pose for nice pictures that were printed in the newspaper of the typical sort of "smiling generic school bus driver preparing for the new day." Whenever we did deal with the press in what was considered a more serious way it was usually a union official who was the spokesperson.
For the most part, the press always flocks to the problem. Whenever a school bus accident happens, the TV-cameras are there and it makes the news. It is important for our union to have spokespeople who can handle some of these situations. For the press, these stories are isolated incidents, one shot deals, but for us there is a continuity to the problems inherent in our line of work and the kind of publicity we get because of it. It is critical for unions to work with and use the media.
Drivers have many stories to tell about all the concern and precautions that we take every day that involve the well being of many children. Just listening to our bus radio, you can often hear a driver not wanting to drop off a young child without the parent being there while the Transportation Department is instructing the driver to do just that. The child will remain on the bus or get taken to the grandmother's house or taken back to the original stop to see if the parent has shown up. These kind of stories rarely make it on the six o'clock news. We learned that it is Important to be insistent with the press, not to let them off the hook and to force them, if at all possible, into a more responsible role. To do this successfully one must have the support of their union along with really clear ideas about the issues that you want to bring to their attention.
There are other avenues to get the kind of coverage you want and in doing so some of the press may start to seek you out. During our safety campaign I felt that we should have gotten ourselves on one of the morning talk shows, with our pamphlets etc. I also thought that as a group, school bus drivers were an interesting group of people and during school bus safety week a TV audience would have been very receptive to getting to know us. For a variety of reasons, time pressures and lack of experience to name a few, we never attempted to do this.
Our union stayed in touch with Diane Hurrera and her parent group. When the time came for the school busing contract to be put out for bid, we were concerned as usual that language protecting our wages and benefits would not be included. We asked Diana if she would go before the School Board and speak on our behalf. The following is an account of what took place about a year ago at that School Board meeting. When Diane came up to the mike and introduced herself the room got so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The Board members remembered all too well and the 100 or sore drivers that were there also remembered her (we did not have P chance to let our drivers know that she would be speaking for us this time).
Everyone knew who she was but no one knew what she would say. Here are excerpts from Diane Hurrera's speech.
"I am the parent of the special education child who was given to the wrong person. When he was three he was given to a stranger at a Muni bus stop. I spent most of last year trying to work with the District over this issue before I came to the Board and made it public. At this time, one year later. I am still fighting with the District over safety issues."
"The bus drivers sought me out last year after they heard me speak before this Board. They asked if I was willing to sit down and talk. I can tell you we were all apprehensive at that meeting. We found we all had been working on many of the same issues. We ended up meeting many times. In meeting these people I found group who saw the same loopholes in the system that I did; a group of people who are very concerned about the safety of children; they don't just sit around and talk about it as others tend to do but act upon what they see, as their safety pamphlet proves."
"I am here tonight representing a group of parents to ask the Board to make sure the new busing contract has protective language in it for our drivers. These people my not all be perfect individually, but as a group they are professionals with our children's best interests at heart. If a whole new group of drivers had to be hired, how many years would it take for them to not only see what could be done but also act on it?"
"Some people think their salaries are much too high and Ihave heard rumors that a new group could be hired at half the cost. But as a community, can we risk our children to what may very well become half the service and half the dedication of this group?"
"Believe me, this time last year I never dreamt I would ever stand up and fight for the bus drivers, but I am convinced that the problems with transportation lie within the District and not with the drivers. Let's protect their jobs with simple wording within the new contract proposal. Thank you."
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