Working Under a Teamster Contract, For Less Than Minimum Wage
Teamster bus attendants in New York City are working under a union contract that pays new workers less than minimum wage. Through a mass meeting, group grievances, leafleting, surveys, and legal action, they’re demanding their rights from their employer—and their local.
The company, Outstanding Transport, contracts with social service agencies to ferry mentally and physically handicapped adults to educational programs and on field trips. The company employs drivers, who start at $360 a week, and attendants, called “matrons,” mostly women, at $175.
The contract specifies a work week of 40 hours “within a twelve hour spread”—which would translate to an hourly rate for a starting matron of $4.38. Driver Natalie Adams explains that both drivers and matrons work split shifts, typically a morning run of around three hours and an afternoon run of four hours. In between, they are required to attend classes, check and clean the bus, and drive frequent mid-day field trips.
Keyva Walker, a matron for seven years, said owner Charles Curcio claims the matrons work only five hours a day. She had just dropped off her last client of the day at 6 p.m., after a 6:30 a.m. start time.
“Doing this job takes a lot of patience,” says Walker. “You have to genuinely care about these people to do this job. Some can’t talk, to tell you something’s wrong, some have behavior problems; we have biters, spitters, strippers.”
Since the workers’ agitation began, Walker said, Curcio is attempting to make their hours look shorter. “He just gave us a new policy on new company letterhead,” she said. “We’re supposed to meet the driver at pick-up time instead of report to the office. Payroll starts then, and once the last consumer is off the bus we are off the clock.”
In 2008 Curcio signed a contract with Teamsters Local 854, which represents mostly school bus drivers. The Curcio family owns several of the largest companies in the local and pays widely varying wages.
Earlier this year driver Luis Santiago got fed up with his low wages and Curcio’s lack of respect. He discovered Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the national reform group, on the internet. He went to a New York TDU chapter meeting and learned that a group called 854 Members for Change already existed—school bus drivers organizing across company lines to enforce their contracts and bring everyone’s pay up.
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TDU helped Santiago file a complaint with the state Department of Labor, which began an investigation, interviewing dozens of workers. Members of Local 854 and other TDU volunteers went to Outstanding locations to leaflet workers and got an enthusiastic reception. Workers made copies and passed them out. The New York Daily News ran two scandalized stories about the case.
Noreen Hollingsworth, a Teamster who works for the city, was one of the volunteers. “Our leafleting was the thing that got them on board,” she said.
More than 90 drivers and matrons, out of a workforce of about 200, packed a neighborhood church September 14 to learn about their rights. For many it was their first time at a union meeting. They formed a committee on the spot.
The committee continues to meet regularly. Members have gotten more than 100 signatures on three group grievances: demanding to be paid for field trips they work, time-and-a-half for overtime, and at least the minimum wage.
Local 854 held its own meeting “to rebut the TDU meeting,” Adams said. Twenty people came, and management was there, with helpful suggestions. Union officials appointed stewards—who promptly joined the TDU organizing committee.
Now matrons and drivers are carefully logging their hours, and how long they’re expected to wait with the vehicle, so they can prove they’re illegally underpaid.
Adams attended the national TDU convention in early November. When she returned, she was assigned for three days to buses that were unsafe to drive. One had exposed wires, another no straps to secure wheelchair clients into their seats. When Adams refused to drive the bus—and took pictures of the unsafe conditions—she was sent home.
Later that day, however, a boss apologized and promised to pay Adams for the day. Apparently he’d learned that workers know their rights now—and didn’t want to see pictures of his buses in the paper.