The private bus company that now transports thousands of Grand
Rapids Public Schools students has appealed a federal ruling saying it must
recognize one employee union instead of another.
A number of companies and school district officials are watching
the case, but opinion is mixed on whether the ruling, if it stands, will
discourage private companies from entering the school transportation market.
Dean Transportation hired about 100 former Grand Rapids Public
Schools bus drivers when it signed a five-year contract with the district in
June 2005. Dean says those drivers now are part of the Dean Transportation
Employee Union, which represents other Dean drivers and related transportation
staff. But the Michigan Education Association, a school employees union, says
the drivers still are represented by the Grand Rapids Education Support
Personnel Association, an MEA affiliate, just as they were when they were
The MEA filed unfair labor practice charges against Dean last
fall when Dean declined to bargain a new contract with GRESPA. The NLRB case is
one of several disputes related to the contract.
The union also had filed a lawsuit against Dean in 17th Circuit
Court in Kent County, alleging "tortious interference" with the contract
between the union and Grand Rapids Public Schools. Tortious interference cases
allege intentional damage to a business relationship or contract by a third
party. The parties settled out of court in early February, with Dean agreeing to
pay $600,000 to the union. According to a report in The Grand Rapids Press,
Kellie Dean, company owner, said the settlement was a "business decision," and
that the union had requested more than $30 million.
In the NLRB case, Administrative Law Judge Michael Marcionese
agreed with the MEA in a ruling in September, saying that Dean must recognize
GRESPA. He said that the former Grand Rapids Public Schools drivers report to
the same location and the same supervisors as previously, that they do not
regularly mingle with Dean drivers in other locations, and that they should
retain their identity as a separate bargaining unit, not as part of a larger
Dean workforce. The Grand Rapids drivers report to a bus center at 900 Union
In the same ruling, the judge said that the Dean Transportation
Employee Union "has been restraining and coercing employees" by applying its
collective bargaining agreement with Dean to the new drivers. The judge said
that the union violated labor law when it told the new drivers they would be
required to join DTEU and pay dues.
Dean is appealing the decision to the full National Labor
Relations Board on the grounds that Marcionese "failed to consider the
regionalized nature of Dean transportation and Dean operations," Dean attorney
David Khorey told Michigan Education Report.
"The question is, what is the appropriate bargaining unit? Is it
just Union Street or is it everybody?" Khorey said. Most of the Union Street
drivers transport special education students, he pointed out, and Dean believes
those drivers have more in common with other drivers of special education
students than with regular education drivers who are at the same location.
"Who’s got the community of interest here? It’s not just the Union Street
Khorey said he believes the ruling, if it stands, would
discourage private bus companies from signing contracts with public school
districts in Michigan, but the general manager of another private bus company,
Laidlaw Education Services, said he doubts the ruling would have any impact on
"It doesn’t affect our continuing desire to work in Michigan,"
said Robert Rutkoski, who oversees Laidlaw’s operations in 10 Michigan school
Based in Lansing, Dean Transportation has more than 500
employees and transports special education students in school districts in the
Grand Rapids area as well as in Alma, Mount Pleasant, St. Johns and Holland.
Most of the transportation is arranged through intermediate school districts.
During the hearing, Dean pointed to its central hiring system, centralized
policies and procedures, and single system for wages and benefits as evidence of
its regional approach.
The reason the former Grand Rapids drivers report to the same
location and do essentially the same job as previously is that Dean and the
school district wanted a smooth transition on behalf of special education
students, Khorey said. The idea was to "be seamless, and over time do the
consolidations. This was seen as a process. … You’ve got to look at this down
the road a little."
In a statement issued after the ruling, Kellie Dean said, "(W)e
remain focused on our key priority of providing safe, reliable transportation
for the students of Grand Rapids Public Schools."
However, the president of GRESPA said the judge’s ruling "shows
you that we did things right."
"Anybody who works out of the 900 Union center is our member,"
Steve Spica told Michigan Education Report. "I hope it makes other districts
think twice about privatizing any of our positions."
Similarly, MEA Uniserv Director Buz Graebner said the ruling
means GRESPA has the right to represent all full-time drivers, regular part-time
drivers, mechanics and route planners at the Grand Rapids center. "We think the
full (National Labor Relations) Board is going to uphold it," he said.
A date for the hearing has not been set. In the meantime, Dean
is treating the Grand Rapids drivers as if they are part of the DTEU, Khorey
Rutkoski, Laidlaw’s area general manager, said private bus
companies can help school districts save money regardless of union contracts.
Each of Laidlaw’s 10 contracts for transportation is handled
differently. Some of the districts are non-union, he said, but some are
represented by MEA affiliates and others by the Teamsters union. Laidlaw does
not have its own employee union.
One reason Laidlaw can offer school districts competitive
contracts is the large size of its operation overall, he said. The company
contracts with some 1,000 districts in various states, with more than 40,000
vehicles and 41,000 drivers.
"When you operate 40,000 vehicles, there are economies of scale
in cost of parts ... electronic routing … and mechanics," he said. "We find that
our staffing levels are much more efficient."
The company also does not have to pay the retirement benefits
that are required of public school districts he said, which considerably reduces
The number of school districts hiring private firms to provide
food, custodial and transportation services is growing steadily. According to
the Mackinac Center for Public Policy's
2006 privatization survey, 37.8 percent
of public school districts have a competitive contract in place for one of those
three services. When the Grand Rapids Public Schools Board of Education approved
the contract with Dean, school officials estimated a savings of $18 million over
five years. With student enrollment at about 20,500, the savings would equal
about $870 per child for the five years combined.
According to the Michigan State Police, which is responsible for
school bus safety inspections, there is a fleet of about 17,500 school buses in
Michigan. Of those, about 1,300 are contracted vehicles owned by private
companies. However, in some cases a public school may retain ownership of its
vehicles but hire a private company to provide drivers and management.