Here we go again.
It was just a year ago that some of Columbia Countys bus drivers became upset that new bus schedules gave them less time behind the wheel - and thus, lower pay. They began pushing for union representation.
The drivers - prompted by their Teamster advisers - shamelessly used the death of a kindergartner in a bus accident to claim the new bus schedules created unsafe conditions. About a dozen drivers staged a sickout to flex their group muscle, letting the system know they meant business.
The effort fizzled - because school officials ignored it. Georgia law allows public employees to join unions, but prohibits them from collectively bargaining with their government employers.
In other words, unionized drivers would be like members of a club - but they wouldnt be able to use that club to beat the system.
A year later, drivers are again looking for the union label. This time its a local affiliate of the Transport Workers Union. About half of the school systems drivers have signed up - and they will get the cold shoulder, again.
Our position remains unchanged from last year, says school Super-intendent Tommy Price. We dont feel like a union is necessary to do whats in the best interest of our employees and taxpayers.
Union organizers say they only want to improve the bus system. But why not be honest about it? Unions survive because they collect membership dues. The members join to present a united front to their employer when seeking better pay, benefits or working conditions.
The drivers will find the union gets what it wants - the members money - but all the drivers get is, well, a club. Without collective bargaining to force the School Board to give drivers the pay, benefits and working conditions they want, the union will simply collect dues and deliver little in return.
Its a bad deal for drivers, who dont have much money to start with. Though Columbia Countys pay is among the highest in Georgia, bus drivers certainly arent getting rich. By giving money to a union that cant help them get higher pay, the drivers are only making their conditions worse.
Having said all that, the Columbia County School Board and administration would be foolish to ignore the drivers concerns. Pay is low; sure, the top hourly rate is good, but much of the drivers seat time is at a lower rate for maintenance travel and field trips. The school system should pay one rate, all the time. After all, they dont expect the drivers to be half as careful on field trip duty - so they shouldnt pay them half as much.
And yes, the double-track bus system has led to some overcrowding. Much of that is because the school system has had a difficult time hiring enough drivers; in fact, a trainer hired by the system has been driving most of the time. Perhaps if the pay improved, more people would want to be drivers.
Benefits, too, are an issue - not only for drivers, but for other personnel being wooed by the union, including custodians and lunchroom workers. Those employees dont have access to the states generous teachers retirement system, and instead are stuck in a less-appealing pension plan. These valuable employees deserve better.
One thing that shouldnt change: Columbia County officials should continue to ignore the union bosses who only want to tap a new stream of revenue from local workers. They should listen to the bus drivers concerns - but not under threats.
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