A disagreement that might include union school bus drivers in Beaufort County and their employer, Durham School Services, heated up Tuesday in Charleston and remained unresolved, leading school officials to wonder if a strike is coming.
Teamsters union members in Beaufort County are to meet later this week with Durham officials to negotiate an employment contract, company spokeswoman Carina Noble said.
Beaufort County School District spokesman Jim Foster said officials heard a couple of weeks ago that local bus drivers might strike if negotiations fail, but have not received official word from Durham.
"Durham assures us they have a contingency plan should a strike occur," Foster said.
Noble declined to discuss what that contingency plan is.
"We are very optimistic we'll reach a deal, and that's what we're focused on," she said.
Durham School Services also has contracts with the Charleston County School District and Dorchester District 2 to employ its drivers and manage its bus routes. Part of the contingency plan being proposed in Charleston calls for using up to 30 out-of-state, non-union drivers. The state Board of Education has called a special meeting today to discuss the issue.
Negotiations between Durham and its union drivers on a new employment contract continued until late Tuesday in Charleston.
"We're not close to getting an agreement," said L.D. Fletcher, president of Teamsters Local 509, which represents drivers in Charleston, Dorchester and Beaufort counties. "The last thing the union and the bus drivers want is a strike. If (Durham) negotiates a contract for fair wages and dignity and respect for employees, then we'll stay and negotiate. But if we come to an impasse, we'll do what we have to do."
Charleston union drivers agreed last week to authorize a strike if a deal can't be reached, and Dorchester 2 followed suit Tuesday. Attempts to determine if Beaufort County drivers have voted to strike were unsuccessful.
Durham has been negotiating with the Lowcountry union drivers since last summer. Neither side will discuss details of drivers' demands or the company's position.
The average Charleston bus drivers is paid $14.65 per hour for 4-1/2 hours of work each day, and the union appears to have requested a roughly 44 percent pay and benefit increase for the first year of a three-year deal, according to Charleston school officials. Drivers' pay would increase 20 percent in the two remaining years, according to the district.
Fletcher said those figures weren't accurate, but he wouldn't give the correct numbers.
"I want to see how far they'll go with their lies," he said.
In Beaufort County, half of the district's roughly 200 bus drivers are Teamsters, Foster said, according to numbers provided by Durham.
"We are hopeful the two sides can reach a resolution that does not require a strike," Foster said.
Fletcher said he had set no deadline for a deal, but Charleston school officials said in a letter to the state they expected to know by Monday whether a strike would occur.
Diette Courrègè Casey, staff writer for The (Charleston) Post & Courier, and Beaufort Gazette staff writer Tom Barton contributed to this report.