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Bus Workers March on Company Offices in UK and US
Coordinated actions denounce FirstGroups global "race to the bottom"

Clarabelle the cow and other union activists march in front of FirstGroups London headquarters at Paddington Station on October 14.

BRAVING POURING RAIN AND SWIRLING winds, more than 150 bus workers and their allies gathered at Paddington Station in London in mid-October for a noisy march and rally that called for an end to attacks on bus industry employment and service standards by FirstGroup, a UK-based multinational bus and rail company.

As the weather cleared and the sun came out on October 14th, activists chanted, blew whistles, pounded drums and read megaphone-amplified poetry directed at FirstGroup management. The march elicited a steady stream of supportive honks from drivers of Londons renowned red, doubledecker buses.

The workers also delivered a letter to company offices inside the enormous bus and rail station, demanding that FirstGroup stop its global "race to the bottom" and cease its anti-union activities in the United States.

Later that day, hundreds of U.S. bus workers carried the same messages to company offices in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois and Minnesota. FirstGroups U.S. subsidiary -- First Student-- has been expanding rapidly in the United States and is now the second largest private provider of school bus transportation services in the country.

Terry Burns, a school bus driver from Jacksonville, Florida, told the London rally of her fears for the safety of drivers and passengers in the United States, due to a lack of proper training and support from First Student.

'We will hold this company accountable to its employees and the communities it serves.'

Terry Burns
First Student bus driver
Jacksonville, FL:

"From my experience, I can tell you that First Student truly is engaged in a race to the bottom," said Burns. "But this is going to change. In Florida, we are ready to stand together for a better future for bus workers. And with the support and solidarity of British bus workers and passengers, we will hold this company accountable to its employees and the communities it serves."

The U.S. workers told their U.K. colleagues that without a union, they have no employment contract, lack access to affordable health care, do not receive sick leave, have no bargaining rights with their employer, and may be fired at will and without cause.

"I work 40 hours a week, but I still cant afford health insurance," said Arnetta Purnell, who drives a transit bus for First Student in Minnesota.

The London rally was jointly organized by the Transport and General Workers Union (T&G) -- the largest transportation worker union in the United Kingdom -- and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) -- the largest union in the United States -- as part of the "Driving Up Standards Together" campaign.

"Creeping Americanisation is a real worry for our members," said T&G Deputy General Secretary Jack Dromey. "Despite increasing profit margins in London, FirstGroup is racing to the bottom on key performance standards like routes and mileage travelled, excess waiting times and pay rates."

"There have been many improvements in London bus services in recent years," he added, "yet companies like FirstGroup still believe that low pay and low standards are the way to win business."

In Florida, dozens of First Student employees were joined by religious leaders and other community allies as they marched to the companys Jacksonville offices.

"Were trying to get our company to understand," said Jacksonville bus driver Arletha Sherman, "that there are some changes that need to made -- for the benefit of us as drivers and for our children."

Pastor and civil rights activist Reginald L. Gundy said he turned out to support the Jacksonville bus workers because their issues are the communitys issues. Citing First Students low wages and poor labor standards, he said: "They are taking advantage of people in this city in many different ways and it needs to stop."

Gundy called the Jacksonville action "just the beginning", adding that "we are here for the long run with this union, and we are here for the long run for these bus drivers."

In a parking lot outside the companys Jacksonville offices, the workers and their allies were met by First Student regional manager John Ziegler. They read him the Bus Worker Bill of Rights, calling on the company to treat them with respect, pay them a living wage, provide access to affordable health care, and ensure that training and safety were top priorities.

He would not respond to repeated questions about why the company continued to interfere with their legal right to form a union free of employer intimidation or harassment.

Jacksonville First Student employee Kendra Millhouse said that she and her co-workers were very grateful for all the expressions of support and solidarity they have received from Firsts U.K. employees. "It feels great to know that theyre behind us 100 percent."

In the United Kingdom, approximately 90 percent of FirstGroups employees belong to a union. FirstGroups 2003-04 "corporate responsibility report" touts the "strong partnership" the company has with U.K. unions. However, as Firsts U.S. employees have begun to mobilize around issues such as fairness, pay, and benefits, the company has responded by ratcheting up its anti-union activities.

At the London rally, 10-year FirstGroup employee Joe Welch denounced his employers double-standard when it comes to unions. "I think their anti-union activities are disgusting," he said. "For a company that says it works with the union in the U.K., they should be ashamed of what they are doing in the United States."

Throughout the day, Welch and numerous other U.K. and U.S. bus workers expressed excitement about what they could accomplish by working together, across the Atlantic.

"All these companies are going global. Weve got to join together too," said Welch. "And here in the U.K. we will support U.S. bus workers in any way we can."

In London, T&G National Transport Organizer Graham Stevenson emphasized that his union was in it for the long haul when it comes to fighting for better bus industry standards: "We will work together over the next months and years, in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in America."

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