About 150 school bus drivers and mechanics contracted with Seattle Public Schools (SPS) have voted to strike if necessary amid an impasse with their employer, Zum.
According to Teamsters Local 174, which represents the workers, more than 95 percent of union members voted in favor of the potential strike action. The union and Zum have been locked in negotiations for months over pay, benefits and rights such as the ability to refuse to cross the picket line of industrial action by other unions.
“The workers are frustrated,” said Jaime Fleming, the director of communications and research at the local. “I mean, this should have been settled a long time ago.”
Zum secured its contract with the school district in 2022 after a spirited campaign by liberal consultants and politicians. The Bay Area company was seen as a smaller, more progressive and green corporation compared to SPS’s other school bus contractor, First Student.
Starting in the 2022-2023 school year, the school district split its routes evenly between Zum and First Student, awarding both companies contracts.
In 2018, about 400 school bus drivers and maintenance workers at First Student, who were also represented by Local 174, went on strike, securing better conditions and health care benefits. Now Fleming says that Zum workers, some of whom used to work at First Student, want the same conditions they secured in 2018.
“In 2018, when we went on strike at First Student, the support from the community was overwhelming,” she said. “And so I can't imagine that it would be a different situation this time since it is the same job, the same workers fighting for the same things.”
The revelations of the breakdown in labor relations at Zum could be uncomfortable for some of its local progressive backers. These include King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, State Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-White Center) and former State Rep. and director of the Seattle Office of Sustainability and Environment Jessyn Farrell, who all participated in a virtual town hall hosted by the company in March 2022.
According to Fleming, Zum appears to have underbid in its offer to the school district in order to secure the contract and now wants to pass on any losses to the workers by providing lower wages and benefits.
“When Zum won the contract for half of the work, it was almost assumed … then that work would have to be done by Teamster members, as it was before,” Fleming said.
“And sure enough, Zum signed neutrality agreements, which made it easy to organize the group. The group signed cards; they became Teamsters. Everything was going according to plan at that point, and then we started negotiating a contract. And over the course of all the months that negotiations have been going on, we've been surprised at this slow pace, because it should have been easy in that the First Student contract set the industry standard for what the expectation was going to be.
“And so as we see it, Zum must have underbid when they made their bid to the Seattle school district, and now they are regretting that decision and trying to pass that on to the people that are doing the work, which is not right.”
In an email to Real Change, a spokesperson for Zum wrote that the company was committed to concluding negotiations with its workers.
“We are currently in ongoing negotiations with Teamsters Local 174,” the spokesperson wrote. “It is our intention to reach a fair and equitable agreement.”
The two sides are scheduled for two bargaining sessions on May 31 and June 1. Depending on how much progress is made, Fleming said, bus drivers and mechanics are prepared to go on strike “as a last resort” before the end of the school year.
Read more of the May 31-June 6, 2023 issue.