Alouette school bus drivers join United Steelworkers union

·4 min read

WEST NIPISSING – The United Steelworkers will soon represent 75 drivers working for Alouette Bus Lines following a certification vote Wednesday.

Hourly wage increases and paid benefits are being sought, along with improvements regarding health and safety issues.

“We’re hoping to achieve equity in pay and hopefully fix the health and safety issues that we've had over the years,” said driver Julie Larabie, adding the COVID-19 pandemic brings new concerns.

In addition to improving their own working conditions, Larabie and fellow driver Estelle Raymond said the long-term goal is to make the job more attractive to others so there isn’t such a shortage of drivers.

“We're having trouble getting young bus drivers interested,” Raymond said, noting the low pay and conditions turn them off. “’Are you crazy driving for that? And the responsibility? No thank you!’”

“We fight today for a better tomorrow,” she said.

Before electing officers and forming a bargaining committee, however, they must first wait for the official Ontario Labour Board certification.

Pascal Boucher, Steelworkers coordinator for Northeastern Ontario, said, that can take a couple of weeks but there may be delays due to COVID-19 issues.

After that is received, Boucher said they will then give the employer notice of intent to bargain a contract.

“Then we have some homework to do, such as establishing a negotiation committee and crafting proposals,” he said.

Depending on the logistics of coordinating representatives for both parties, Boucher said first contract negotiations can take six to 12 weeks or more.

The Alouette drivers threatened to walk off the job early in October, but put the brakes on after meeting with company representatives and hearing from other drivers in the province.

See related story: Alouette busses rolling, but drivers not yet satisified

At the time, representatives of the drivers said they wanted to be paid for cleaning the buses to meet COVID-19 pandemic requirements as well as get a raise to the level a sister company’s drivers receive. They were offered another 15 minutes although some drivers thought that wasn’t enough.

Alouettte is owned by Sinton-Landmark, which also owns Northway Bus Lines serving Sudbury. In October, Alouette drivers were getting $16 an hour while Northway paid $17.70.

“You know, the first time we spoke about it, we were ready to walk out and we would have had no job protection,” Larabie said, adding they felt the talks were going “nowhere” and they should reconsider their strategy.

Estelle Raymond, a bus driver for 32 years, said they got calls from other drivers in the province warning them not to walk off the job without a union to represent them and try to get a contract with a legal process to protect them.

“As you turn the key and we put our hands on the steering wheel, we all have the same job, the same driver's license, the same training... all have the same responsibility,” Raymond said. “And that is why we went with the union.”

Since then, Raymond said the initial petition they received another quarter an hour while Northland drivers got four times the raise.

“We are now at $16.25, meanwhile, or a sister company, Northway bussing …got a dollar raise and we got 25 cents. They are getting $18.70 now,” she said.

Many of the drivers were not convinced joining a union was a good idea, some fearing they’d lose any wins to paying dues. While they achieved the majority needed to certify, not all the drivers are on board.

They had 40 drivers vote for unionizing while 29 voted against. When they threatened to walk off the job, they had 59 signatures on a petition for a wage hike.

“We had many meetings,” Larabie explained, “because a lot of drivers felt unsure about union. At the end of the day, we learned that a lot of our thoughts about unions were wrong. We learned that it's not going to eat our paycheque.”

Larabie said the dues might amount to $7 every two weeks.

“It's a better way knowing that we have someone that can speak up and help us, that way when we have issues, legally, we're doing it the right way. This was the smartest way to go. And we have people who know what they're doing to help us.”

Dave Dale is a Local Journalism Reporter with BayToday.ca. LJI is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Dale, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, BayToday.ca