Unionized school bus drivers and monitors for Beaufort County's public schools voted 93-2 Monday to authorize a strike if negotiations with their employer fail, the Teamsters announced.
They join unionized drivers in both the Charleston County and Dorchester 2 districts, who have voted to strike if they cannot get more pay and benefits from Durham School Services.
The Teamsters and the company failed to reach an agreement during contract negotiations Friday and Saturday in Charleston. They plan to meet again today, according to a Durham spokeswoman and the Teamsters union.
Negotiations will last three consecutive days and will focus on a different district each day, the Durham spokeswoman said. Beaufort County will be discussed Thursday.
The districts, which contract with Durham for bus services, are not part of the negotiations.
Neither Durham nor the Teamsters has set a deadline for a deal, so it's not clear when a strike might start if an agreement isn't reached.
Drivers have been working without a contract since July.
About half of Beaufort County's 200 bus drivers and monitors are Teamsters, according to Jim Foster, spokesman for the Beaufort County School District.
Should negotiations fail and drivers strike, Durham has assured the district it has a plan to get students to and from school, Foster said.
"As long as negotiations continue, there won't be a strike," he said. "That's a hopeful sign. The real worrying begins if talks break off."
Should drivers strike, Durham spokeswoman Carina Noble said, the company plans to bring in out-of-state drivers as well as recruit new drivers locally. Noble said local advertisements seeking new drivers should be begin today or Wednesday.
The S.C. Board of Education last week unanimously agreed to help the three school districts that contract with Durham School Services deal with a strike. Durham will be allowed to bring in out-of-state drivers who lack state-required certification.
Noble says the company will try to minimize disruptions to students, and it remains "committed to reaching an agreement with the Teamsters as we continue to balance the interests of our employees, our customers and our company at the negotiating table."
The drivers and monitors involved in negotiations are members of Teamsters Local 509 based in Columbia.
Neither side will discuss drivers' demands or the company's position.
"We had to take a strike vote to get Durham to get serious in negotiations. We've met over 39 times with the contractor, and they hadn't moved on the key issues of concern to the drivers and monitors," L.D. Fletcher, president of Local 509, said in a news release Monday.
Attempts Monday to reach Fletcher were unsuccessful.
Elisa Nix-Jones, a Durham driver and Teamster shop steward in Beaufort, has been busing students for 20 years and said in the Teamsters news release the strike vote "shows how much the drivers and monitors support our union in trying to resolve the difficult issues we're facing with the company."
Several drivers waiting to board buses Monday at the school district office in Beaufort declined comment.
- Beaufort County negotiations to avoid school bus strike continue: Jan. 25, 2013
- SC board approves emergency plan in case of school bus driver strike: Jan. 23, 2013
- Beaufort County School District updates on possible bus strikes