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February 05. 2013 8:47PM

Merrimack bus drivers to vote on leaving union

MERRIMACK - Unionized bus drivers in the Merrimack School District (SAU 26) could soon become non-unionized.

The drivers will vote in a Feb. 20 election aimed at decertifying the Teamsters Union Local 633, New Hampshire District, as the collective bargaining agent for the nearly 50 employees in the bargaining unit.

The election, supervised by the National Labor Relations Board, was scheduled after 37 employees petitioned the NLRB for the vote in January, according to Charles Benzing, a 10-year driver and organizer of the decertification effort.

The drivers voted to organize with Teamsters representation in 2010, when the Merrimack school bus service was operated by First Student bus company. The Merrimack vote came as part of a statewide campaign by the Teamsters to organize First Student drivers throughout New Hampshire in five elections covering 16 bargaining units.

Since then, some local school boards have voted to switch their contracts from First Student to other companies. The Merrimack School Board voted in 2012 to switch from First Student to Student Transportation of America.

"We voted for the union because we wanted some protection from First Student," said Benzing. "But STA has been more honest, open and equal with us."

The Teamsters were able to reach tentative agreements with STA on two separate occasions, but each time the contracts were voted down. The drivers appreciated the better terms and working conditions that were offered, said Benzing, but didn't want to recommit to Teamster representation by approving a Teamster-negotiated contract.

The company has since implemented the improved terms and conditions on its own.

Benzing said dissatisfaction with the union stems primarily from what he characterized as inaction on more than 20 grievances filed by drivers against First Student. He said the situation was further aggravated when the Teamsters fought efforts by the employees to decertify the union.

Both sides are campaigning aggressively as the election approaches. "The STA recognizes them by law as the bargaining agent, so they (the Teamsters) have the right to come on company property," Benzing said. "They have in fact gone house to house to some of the drivers last weekend."

Benzing and his supporters have shared information about salaries at the N.H. Local 633 offices, using information from a website called Teamsters for a Democratic Union (tdu.org). Three officers at the local make more than $150,000 a year, with Secretary/Treasurer and Principal Officer David Laughton listed on the site as earning $271,000.

Rick Laughton, business agent and organizer responsible for the Merrimack negotiations, said he could not comment on the decertification vote. "All I can tell you is we've been discussing the vote with the members that are there; we are assessing the situation ourselves; and we are continuing to meet with the company to try to negotiate a contract."

In a flier distributed to union members, the Teamsters warn that decertification would mean that the employees would have to wait at least a year before they could vote for union representation again; that there will be no way to file a grievance if raises are not forthcoming in September; and that STA drivers represented by Teamsters in Windham and Pelham have a $1 an hour raised guaranteed in September.

The tension between the union and some of the Merrimack drivers has had no effect on student transportation or other STA services to the school district, Benzing said.

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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