WESTBOROUGH – On most given days during the school year, they are behind the wheel, driving children to and from school.
But on Wednesday, March 1, about 20 bus drivers from the Westborough and Marlborough districts, along with several supporters, were on foot. They walked in front of the Forbes Municipal Building as part of an informational picket.
The drivers, members of Teamsters Union Local 70, wore signs regarding stalled contract negotiations with their employer, NRT. They wanted the School Committee, which was meeting at Forbes that night, to support bringing NRT back to the negotiating table.
“We’re trying to get the School Committee to get NRT to the table and work out a contract,” said Jim Marks, the union representative.
According to Marks, negotiations have been going on since January 2022.
Westborough Public Schools (WPS) Superintendent Amber Bock said that while the schools are not in charge of negotiations, they do support the drivers.
“From the perspective of the WPS, we love our drivers,” she said. “They are so professional and committed. We work to support them in all aspects of their work, and I believe it is why they appreciate driving for our families.
“We expect NRT and the union to negotiate in good faith to provide a strong settlement that works for everyone involved.”
During the School Committee meeting, representatives from NRT said contract negotiations were “ongoing.”
Westborough Public Schools is in the third year of a five-year contract with NRT, said Bock.
“Our contract with NRT sets parameters that they must maintain for our drivers, and for our routes and our buses – but it is limited in its impact to the current negotiations,” she said.
What the drivers have to say
Michaela Voutas, a lifelong resident of Westborough, has been a bus driver for 20 years.
“When we worked for First Student [who had the previous bus contract], you got more respect,” she said.
Her daughter, Madison, joined her mother on the picket line.
“If you had a complaint, they [First Student] would listen,” she said.
For the drivers on the picket, the problem began when NRT took over in 2020.
Voutas listed some of their contentions in an email sent to the Community Advocate. She said the driver’s don’t get paid holidays and can’t buy back their sick time or roll the hours they don’t use to the new school year. Plus, they don’t receive holiday or year-end bonuses.
“They’ve taken away our personal rights with a new camera facing the driver (live feed) and the front of bus; it records your children in live feed. It’s also a safety issue, it talks back to us! We have enough going on between students on board, traffic, pedestrians, we don’t need a camera talking to us while we are trying to focus on more serious issues … DRIVING SAFE!” she wrote.
Voutas also discussed the shortage of bus drivers that’s affected many communities in the region. She said the shortage has led to doubling of routes and driving with so many children that they’re sitting in the aisles.
“We’re asking the School Committee to please help … we can use all the help we can get,” said Debbie Jobes of Northborough, who drives the special needs bus for Westborough. “They won’t negotiate. We’re essential to these kids.
“I like to get back the sick time buyout, and I don’t want to lose seniority,” she added. “I want to stay in Westborough, not in North Dartmouth or Lowell where they can send me.”
“I like the driving, but not the rigamarole,” said Jean Pachico, who’s been driving in Westborough for 16 years.
Westborough’s bus drivers were joined by drivers from Marlborough and Framingham.
“NRT was bought out. It changed from being a family-run company,” said Cayla Dodd, who drives the route for Richer Elementary and Marlborough High School. “They’ve taken away little by little … they’re acting corporate.”
Dodd said last fall, she was demoted from her job as driver/trainer for no reason. Her case is currently before the National Labor Relations Board.
Stephen Pond stood across the street. He’s also a bus driver for Westborough, but wore no picket sign. That’s because he was against the picket.
“It’s a part-time job,” he said. “It’s 20 hours a week, $32 an hour … It’s not a Westborough issue, it’s NRT’s issue [with the union].”
“We care about the kids and parents,” Pond added.
Organizers of the picket said that while they don’t want to strike, that could be an option if contract negotiations do not resume soon.
The Community Advocate has reached out to NRT for comment.
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