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Politics

Central Ontario school bus drivers stage protests for job security

School bus drivers held pickets at Student Transportation Services of Central Ontario and Peterborough-Kawartha MPP Dave Smith's constituency office on Tuesday. Mark Giunta reports.

A few dozen school bus drivers hopped on a bus from Durham Region for pickets at two locations in Peterborough on Tuesday.

The group of Unifor members held a picket in front of the Student Transportation Services of Central Ontario (STSCO).

STSCO is a consortium which looks over nine local busing companies for service in central Ontario, including Peterborough.

“We’re looking for job security. We’re looking for safety. STSCO is reviewing its operators,” said Debbie Montgomery, president of Unifor Local 4268. “We’ve had some operators notified of a permanent layoff. That drives people away from the industry.”

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The drivers work for individual companies, and STSCO has nine companies that it contracts for busing routes.

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Joel Sloggett, the CAO of STSCO, met with the drivers on the front lawn of the Clonsilla Avenue office to hear their concerns.

“We’re dealing with the whole group of companies at the same time. We’re at the end of a three-year term and we’re looking at extending it for future years,” said Sloggett.

Unifor represents drivers for two of the companies in this area, and both contracts have been settled for the next three years.

The union was calling on the government to stop allowing “contract flipping,” which it says allows consortia to award contracts to the lowest bidder.

“That drives down standards. We used to exceed standards. Now, we meet them,” added Montgomery. “These people want to know what they are driving in September. They want to send a message to the consortia. They are tired of chasing their rights,”

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According to Unifor, school bus drivers in Central Ontario make around $16-$17 an hour.

“Wages are always a problem. These people aren’t paid enough for their responsibilities,” said Montgomery. “When contracts are flipped, it drives down wages, job security and benefits.”

The picket then moved to Peterborough-Kawartha MPP Dave Smith’s constituency office on Water Street, but the office was closed during the time of the protest.

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Smith was at Queen’s Park on Tuesday and wasn’t immediately available for comment.

“Nearly all student transportation services are delivered by third parties under contract with school boards and student transportation consortia,” said Heather Irwin, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education.  “All decisions regarding student transportation, including procurement and contracting practices, reside with individual school boards and consortia. As such, it would be inappropriate for the ministry to comment on issues related to ongoing discussions.”

Irwin pointed to funding increases for transportation by the government.

“In 2019-20, the ministry is increasing transportation funding to more than $1 billion, up 10% from the previous school year, to help boards manage increased costs and address school boards’ transportation funding pressures,” added Irwin.  “The government is supporting a school bus driver retention bonus pilot program to help school bus operators with the retention and recruitment of school bus drivers. The most recent retention bonus payments were sent to about 17,000 school bus drivers in March 2019.”

The protesters left Smith’s office shortly after noon to get back in-time to do their after school bus routes.