Thursday, December 11, 2008

Editorial: Both sides should stand together for kids

Contract negotiations between First Student and the Teamsters union representing school bus drivers on the Kenai Peninsula have several sticking points — wages, benefits, paid time off, fair treatment and maintenance issues.

There’s a lot to argue about, and the debate’s been going on since March. But there are a few things both sides of the contract talks between First Student and the Teamsters union representing the bus drivers can agree on: No one wants kids left standing on the side of the street. And everyone wants quality, experienced bus drivers.

The two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Drivers have voted to authorize a strike in order to force First Student to come up with a better offer. Since they invoked the “U” word by voting to unionize last February, drivers have bite to their bark.

Unions draw fire in some camps for bullying companies into meeting unreasonable demands, collecting forced dues from workers who don’t want to be members, and for strikes that often hurt innocent bystanders more than anyone else. In this case, it’d be kids and parents.

On the other hand, unions can be a useful tool in ensuring workers are treated fairly and can bring about needed changes that workers standing alone can’t.

In this situation, both sides still seem willing to talk.

While unions sometimes can take advantage of people, companies and corporations can take advantage of people, too. With wealth inequality as high as its been in America since the late 1920s, 20.4 percent of peninsula residents without health care insurance and retirement plans torpedoed by stock market woes, it’s clear companies have been doing more than their share of advantage-taking lately.

Representation at the table isn’t the issue, whether it’s a union rep, a lawyer, or the workers themselves. What matters is finding reasonable middle ground that fairly compensates drivers for the valuable job they do, yet still allows First Student to be an effective — and that means profitable — private company.

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