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Hamilton County's contract school bus drivers have their first contract with Teamsters Local 327, which organized over 250 drivers and monitors for Durham School Services last year.

The new contract, which was unanimously ratified last month, provides wage boosts for first-year drivers from 8 to 22 percent, retroactive to March 1, union president Joe Bennett said Tuesday. But the contract is with a company that is preparing to shut down its local operations after the county school system decided in March to change bus carriers.

Woodmore Elementary school bus crash

Bennett said the union is preparing to talk with First Student Inc., which was awarded a contract for next year valued of more than $11 million to operate 165 school buses throughout Hamilton County.

The Teamsters local, which began negotiating its contract with Durham last July, reached an agreement and ratified the 3-year labor pact with Durham on April 27th, a month after the school board opted to change bus carriers.

"We've already had conversations with First Student and we'll be in negotiations on June the 7th," Bennett said. "We don't have a 3-year agreement yet with First Student, but our contract (with Durham) included language in the contract regarding transfer of title or interest."

Bennett said the contract reached with Durham included wage increases, more paid holidays, guaranteed safety standards and a number of other benefits.

"We fought so hard for this and went through so much to get this agreement, and it just feels amazing now that all of our hard work has paid off," said Katie Williams, a driver at the Chattanooga yard who worked along with her sister Kayla and mother Lisa to organize the drivers. "It's incredible, the things that you can accomplish when you refuse to give up."

The former Teamsters Local 515 in Chattanooga once represented the independent contract bus drivers in Hamilton County, but the Durham contract with Teamsters Local 327, which merged with 515 years ago, is the biggest school bus driver contract for the Teamsters.

"From the organizing campaign to ratification, this process took over two years, but they stood united," Bennett said, praising the "tremendous courage" of the Chattanooga drivers. "I couldn't be prouder of the amazing things that these men and women have done."

Edward Flavin, director of communications for Durham School Services corporate office in Lisle, Illinois, said he expects the Teamsters will retain representation after Durham's contract ends on June 30 and First Student takes over the service in July.

"Typically, when we close a business unit, the collective bargaining agreement covering our employees is transferred to the new operator, pending their agreement with the union," he said. "We had a good experience negotiating with the Teamsters; while we had agreed wage increases for the start of the school year, that is now a decision for the new operator and the union."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

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