Lawrence bus system workers will vote next month to decide whether to join the nation's largest transit union.
Sam McReynolds, a driver for the T, said employees are tired of low wages and strict benefits standards. Drivers, he said, must work a six-day week to qualify as full-time and eligible for health benefits.
"That's not right," he said. "They're tearing up families doing that."
The National Labor Relations Board will oversee the Aug. 8 election at MV Transportation Inc., the company that provides Lawrence bus service under city contract.
Patrick O'Mara, MV's director of human resources, said the company offers alternatives to unionization. Only four of MV's 37 outlets have union representation, he said.
"We consider ourselves a very employee-friendly company," he said.
In the vote, employees will be deciding whether to affiliate with the Amalgamated Transit Union.
Quentin Grandstaff, a driver for MV Transportation, is helping spearhead the union drive. Wages are a key issue; he said the company pays starting wages, after training, of $8.50 an hour.
"You work six days to get 40 hours, and after working 40 hours you're eligible for food stamps," Grandstaff said.
McReynolds said he lives in Tonganoxie because he can't afford to live in Lawrence on the wages he is paid. He blamed low-cost labor provided by Kansas University students for keeping wages low.
"This is Lawrence," he said. "Lawrence isn't going to pay a decent wage, because they don't have to. Personally, I hope the union passes."
O'Mara said MV's wages are comparable to those paid other bus drivers in the area. MV, he said, pays drivers more than Lawrence Bus Co., but not as well as the Lawrence school district. Drivers said Lawrence Bus Co. pays starting wages of about $7.50 an hour.
As for the work week, O'Mara said, "the schedule we provide is a six-day service. We need to keep the buses running."
O'Mara said the company tries to empower employees by letting them voice concerns at meetings.
"We are constantly encouraging them, that if they have anything they want to address ... they can use the meetings," he said. "That's something maybe we need to communicate better, how to utilize the process. We're interested in working with our employees."
Grandstaff was skeptical. Drivers voice their concerns at meetings, he said, but little has been done to address them until the union drive started.
"We've already tried, one-by-one, walking into the office and talking about this, and nothing's been done," he said. "It's time to collectively bargain."
The Amalgamated Transit Union says it is the largest union representing transit workers in the United States and Canada. The union has more than 175,000 members in 46 states and nine Canadian provinces.
If approved, the union would represent all regular full- and part-time drivers, dispatchers, reservationists, utility employees and mechanics who choose to join. The application to NLRB for election said 47 employees would be eligible to join the union.
Union sentiment was difficult to gauge Tuesday. Most employees declined comment.
One driver who wouldn't give his name said: "I don't think (a union) is going to be any help."
An initial petition for the union election was submitted June 20, then withdrawn. A new petition was submitted July 5, and an agreement for election was filed by both the company and union advocates the next day.
Employees will vote by secret ballot, with both sides having an observer on hand to ensure fairness. The union will meet approval if it receives more than half the votes cast.
The city is in the first year of a three-year contract with MV Transportation. This year, the city pays a base rate of $49,346 a month to the company.
City Manager Mike Wildgen said the city had no position on the union issue.
"It's a private contract," he said. "It's not the city's place to come into those discussions."