First Student drivers applaud as they learn the details of their new contract.

Courtesy of Teamsters Local 174
First Student drivers applaud as they learn the details of their new contract. Courtesy of Teamsters Local 174
After nine days of striking, the Teamsters Local 174 members who drive Seattle Public School's buses agreed to go back to work.

With 97 percent of voting members agreeing to their employer’s revised benefits plan, the union agreed to begin driving routes today.

The agreement between the Teamsters and First Student “provides quality healthcare at an affordable cost. It also provides the bus drivers with a Teamster pension plan, the first ever achieved for contracted school bus drivers in Seattle and possibly the entire country for First Student members,” according to the union’s website.

A mediator help the parties negotiate on Feb. 8 and finalized the new benefits on Friday, Feb. 9. The Teamsters union members voted at the Union Hall in South Park the next day.

The strike began with an impasse in negotiations between bus drivers and First Student, the company that contracts with Seattle Public Schools for bus service. The strike forced parents to find alternative methods of transportation for their children.

Thursday, Feb 1 marked the first day of the strike of approximately 400 drivers — with active picket lines outside bus lots in South Park and Lake City — after several months of talks with First Student failed to bring an agreement over healthcare and retirement benefits.

And unlike a one-day strike in November, this one was going to last until a deal was struck.

On Wednesday, Feb. 7, some of Seattle’s public school teachers announced they would be joining the strike after students were gone for the day.

Teamsters Local 174 spokesperson Jamie Fleming said before the strike ended that First Student, “clearly did not bring their wallet when they knew they were going to have to,” from the outset of talks last summer. The only change came after that November strike, she said, when the company included health care coverage for individuals but “nothing even remotely affordable for spouses and families.”

That offer was rejected in early January by a margin of 85 percent among voting drivers.

An second proposal from First Student after a negotiating session last Tuesday was little different, she said, except for one minor change impacting 22 of the 400 drivers.

But the company countered in its own statement earlier in the week, framing the latest offer as one with an, “expanded benefits package,” including comprehensive health care coverage for full-time drivers and their families. The company would cover 80 percent of annual premiums for part-timers, and the contract also includes a 401(k) retirement plan with company match, said Chris Kemper, senior director of corporate communications, in a release.

Fleming said the most recent offer was, “a good first step.”

“They just need to make a second step, and that’ll probably be enough to get these drivers back to work,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Teamsters Union pressured Seattle Public Schools to back up its words in October and fine First Student for every day routes are missed.

“On October 31, 2017, Seattle Public Schools Assistant Superintendent for Operations Pegi McEvoy sent a letter to First Student making it clear that in the event a labor dispute caused First Student to miss bus routes, Seattle Public Schools would be fining them to the maximum extent allowed under their contract – a potential cost of $1.2 million per day,” reads a release on the union website. “Teamsters Local 174 now calls on Seattle Public Schools to follow through on that promise.”

The district said Thursday that service for some bus routes may be provided as the strike continues, with First Student prioritizing special education routes where possible. The district’s transportation office will call families the night before if a driver is available for their route.

Students who missed class due to the strike will not be granted an excused absence, and families are encouraged to make alternate plans, including carpools, walking school buses with neighbors, or — for older students — taking public transportation.

Athletic events went on as scheduled with the use of charter buses, but all field trips were canceled for the duration of the strike.

Seattle Education Association President Phyllis Campano said the union believes everybody deserves healthcare and a secure retirement, and that the display of solidarity is about showing how important each part of public education is, including transportation.

“We want the kids ready to learn once they get to school, and the bus drivers are the first people they interact with,” she said.

She also noted that First Student posted a $6 billion profit last year.