May 7, 2004

An independent labor arbitrator has stepped in and will try to resolve a dispute between the Brandywine School District and the union that its bus drivers chose more than a year ago to represent them.

The union claims that the district administration is acting in bad faith by deliberately stalling on coming to terms on an initial contract in the hope that enough drivers will lose heart and agree to decertify the union. The chief weapon for doing so, according to a union source, is denying or restricting a pay raise.

District officials declined to comment.

Although the drivers are covered by the state's Public School Employment Relations Act -- which gives them the right to organize and requires boards of education to collectively bargain -- it is questionable whether the mandated arbitration will be able to do much to break the stalemate.

Debbie Murray-Sheppard, principal aide to the Public Employment Relations Board, said it is non-binding arbitration and that both sides must agree to the arbitrator's recommendations before they are effective. If they don't agree, she said, "it will be up to public pressure to resolve or not resolve the issue."

Arbitrator Martha Cooper is beginning the fact-finding phase of her effort. Murray-Sheppard said both sides agreed upon her selection. She described Cooper as a labor-relations professional with no direct tie to the three-member relations board, itself an autonomous panel supported by the state Department of Administrative Services.

Martha Cooper is believed not to be related to Ellen Cooper, Brandywine's in-house lawyer. In any event, the district is being represented in this matter by David Williams, of the Morris James Hitchens & Williams law firm, who was Brandywine's legal counsel before Ellen Cooper was hired.

With its teachers and most other non-managerial employees represented by unions and relations with those organizations apparently on good terms, there would seem little likelihood that Brandywine would be resistant to further unionizing. The difference in this case, however, could be that the drivers chose to belong to Local 1183 of the United Auto Workers. That local primarily represents workers at the Daimler Chrysler automobile assembly plant in Newark. The other Brandywine unions are not affiliates of national unions.

Brandywine has about 100 bus drivers. They reportedly voted for the union by a two-to-one margin in March, 2003, with about a 75% participation rate in the referendum.

The union source said that pay and about 95 unresolved grievances, most of which deal with working conditions, are the issues blocking a contract.

The drivers reportedly are paid on a scale which ranges from $12.91 an hour for new hires to $15.33 an hour for those with 13 or more years of experience. Of that, the state pays $12.01 an hour. A local contract would cover the district supplement.

According to the source, the district offered an additional 4 an hour and has not budged from that since negotiations began in June, 2003.

About half of the drivers are said to be long-time employees, with at least seven and up to more than 20 years of service. Attrition is endemic among the other half as the workers gain experience and qualify for jobs in the private sector. A driver on the Atlantic City casino run, the top rung in the business, makes between $25 and $30 an hour.

Brandywine drivers work split shifts averaging a total of 25 to 30 hours a week on regular school runs and can bid on additional work, such as driving students on filed trips and to athletic events, on a rotating arrangement based on seniority. Because their regular employment does not total 40 hours a week, time-and-a-half overtime does not kick in until weekends. Layovers on the special runs are paid at minimum wage.

In a few cases, the union source said, an aide on a bus, who is covered by Brandywine's paraprofessionals contract, is earning more than the driver.

The main object of the grievances, according to the source, is the district's bus depot in northeast Wilmington. Several drivers reportedly have been injured in the parking lot because of the poor condition of the paving there and there is said to be a serious security problem. The parking lot is outside the fenced depot, where the buses and stored and maintained. Brandywine leases the depot.

2004. All rights reserved.

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