Massive school bus contract flip shows system's instability


TORONTO, Feb. 29, 2016 /CNW/ - The flipping of more than 450 Toronto-area school bus routes this morning shows how unstable a system Ontario has for handing out such contracts, and will only get worse, warns Unifor, the province's largest school bus driver union.

"When school bus contracts are constantly being flipped from one provider to another, the system simply cannot deal with the issues that are most important to students and their parents," Unifor Ontario Regional Director Katha Fortier said.

"Parents are now left wondering who will be getting their children to school next fall, and what further turmoil might be brought to this very important service."

Fortier said the move by the Toronto Student Transportation Consortia will be followed by many more routes being flipped before the next school year, as new contracts are handed out in the coming weeks.

Unifor has argued that the Request for Proposals system for awarding school bus contracts, now being rolled out across the province, leads to constant instability in the system as school bus companies, drivers and parents don't know who will get children to school from year to year.

Many of the drivers of the 452 routes being lost by First Student Canada, which will result of the complete closure including the Thornhill location, are members of Unifor Local 4268.

While the local will work with the company and the school board to move as many drivers as possible to the new bus company, there is no guarantee. Under Ontario law, the drivers' union representation, wages, benefits, working conditions and even employment do not move with them.

"We are hoping to bring some stability to a very unstable situation," said Local 4268 President Deb Montgomery, herself a school bus driver. "As drivers, we get to know our students, and want to provide a familiar face for them in the morning."

Unifor has met with the Ministry of Education to discuss shortfalls in the school bus system resulting from the use of RFPs, and will continue to do so.

"The Minister of Education, Liz Sandals, needs to give this her direct attention," Fortier said. "This kind of route flipping will become the norm more and more across Ontario as the RFP system is expanded."

Unifor has been a leader in raising concerns about the RFP process. Its report, Steering Clear, Avoiding the RFP Trap, released at the start of the 2014-15 school year, warned that route flipping resulting from RFPs would lead to volatility, uncertainty in the school bus system and more unsafe school buses on the road.

Unifor has called for taking drivers' compensation out of the bidding process and for the establishment of an independent office to monitor school bus contracts and ensure greater stability and fair wages for drivers.

Any review of the RFP process must include more transparency among the school transportation consortia that administer the process on behalf on local school boards, since such bodies act largely in secret and beyond the oversight of local school boards.

To see Unifor's Steering Clear report and other research, go to:

Unifor is Canada's largest union in the private sector, representing more than 310,000 workers, including more than 1,600 school bus drivers. It was formed Labour Day weekend 2013 when the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union merged.