Berkeley bus drivers

For nearly a decade, classified employees in the Berkeley Unified School District were divided between two unions, but when a majority of operations and support workers signed petitions to be represented by the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees, AFT Local 6192, they were reunited. In December the school board agreed to the workers’ decision.

“We’re very happy to be back together,” says bus driver Johnny Billups, one of 170 workers in operations and support. “We’re starting to participate in BCCE activities, and talking about what we can achieve in our next contract.”

Years ago, all Berkeley classifieds belonged to one union, Public Employees Local 1. When the clerical employees and teacher aides joined the AFT in 2002, bus drivers, food service, maintenance and yard workers, campus security, and custodians joined the Stationary Engineers, Local 39.

“That union had no experience in public schools,” says Billups, who has driven or washed the district’s busses since 1972. “In negotiations for the first contract, they gave up many rights we had before,” he explains, including medical coverage during the summer months and pay for the Fourth of July. “I told the union, and human relations, that what they’d negotiated wasn’t legal.”

Billups got other employees on board, and eventually a court case reinstated the lost benefits. “Last year we finally got some back pay,” he says, “and BCCE helped us.”

When Billups and others attended meetings of the Stationary Engineers, “they’d shout us down, like we were stepchildren,” he says. “Once they told us to be quiet, and that ‘we wish you weren’t here.’ And by that time, we wished we weren’t either.”

When there were discipline problems on the job, including preferential treatment and favoritism, the other union wouldn’t defend its members. At district school board meetings they would watch the president of the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees, Billups says. “When we saw Paula Phillips up there fighting for her people, we thought, ‘This is where we need to be.’”

Last fall, unit members asked the Stationary Engineers to either provide better representation or give up its representation rights. The union let the classified employees leave. Afterwards, Phillips circulated petitions among the workers asking for AFT representation.

“People had already made up their minds that they wanted our AFT local to represent them,” says Phillips, who collected 120 signatures in three days. Operations and support workers had gone to her over the years for advice on enforcing their contract. “At my site, we went out to the gate to meet her, and I urged everyone to sign,” Billups says.

Phillips presented the petition to the district board, which agreed to recognize AFT Local 6192 as the unit’s representative. Contract negotiations have begun, and the local is moving to include all classified employees in a single contract.

Conditions for classified employees have already improved as a result of a November agreement between Local 6192 and the district that creates eligibility lists for job vacancies. Many district employees who were hired as temps and substitutes have been working without normal benefits for years. AFT Local 6192 wants the district to change that.

“We’ve been establishing labor-management committees to help the district move in a different direction, and to resolve the problems of workers at the lowest possible level. We have one now in transportation and are moving next to food service,” Phillips says.

“The rights of these workers were violated for so long they’re really ready to put up a fight now,” Phillips adds. “They have been waiting for the chance to negotiate a new contract, and they will do what it takes 
to get one.”

— By David Bacon, CFT Reporter