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Philly school bus drivers, maintenance workers vote to authorize a strike

"If the school district decides not to respect us, protect us or pay us, we will do be forced to do what we need to do — stand strong, win in solidarity," a union rep said.

John Bynum, a leader of 32BJ, addresses a crowd of hundreds gathered after union members authorized a strike vote Saturday.
John Bynum, a leader of 32BJ, addresses a crowd of hundreds gathered after union members authorized a strike vote Saturday.Read moreJOHN DONGES / 32BJ

The union representing 2,000 Philadelphia school bus drivers and maintenance workers authorized a strike Saturday if they don’t have a new contract by the end of the month.

Hundreds of representatives of 32BJ SEIU District 1201 took to North Broad Street, chanting and clapping, after members voted overwhelmingly to strike if necessary. The vote does not mean a strike will definitely happen, though — union leaders will make that call.

“What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!” the union members said. 32BJ also represents the mechanics, bus attendants, building cleaners and engineers, and trades workers who support Philadelphia’s 215 schools and 114,000 students.

Union officials say the two sides are split on matters of pay, safety, and training. Negotiations resume Tuesday.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia schools still have more than 200 teacher vacancies heading into the 2022-23 school year

John Bynum, assistant district leader for 32BJ, told workers that it’s “crunch time.”

“It’s our hope to leave that meeting with a contract that we can bring back to ratify,” Bynum said at the rally, held outside Benjamin Franklin High School on North Broad Street. “But if the School District decides not to respect us, protect us, or pay us, we will be forced to do what we need to do — stand strong, win in solidarity.”

Bynum, a union official who has spent two decades working in the district’s transportation department, said the school system must step up.

“You have cleaners working for $14.31 an hour, poverty wages,” Bynum said in an interview. “You have members that drive buses for $19 an hour, and everybody else is paying $25 an hour. All we are asking for is a wage comparable to the people who do the same work we do in the city.”

32BJ is also asking for more continuing education for some members — from active-shooter and de-escalation training to training on how to identify asbestos for workers who may encounter it.

“We just want to keep our schools safe and our kids safe,” said Bynum.

» READ MORE: Philly schools will be mask-optional this year

Larisa Shambaugh, the district’s chief talent officer, said in a statement that officials remain “hopeful that we will be able to agree to fair and sustainable terms of a contract that values and supports our employees.”

School staff are scheduled to return to work Tuesday; students are expected to be back in class Aug. 29.

“Last year, we saw firsthand the joy and excitement of our students, families, and staff as they reconnected in person and began to re-engage in the caring school communities they missed so much,” Shambaugh said. “Keeping this momentum going is what’s best for our young people.”

Bynum said that though most of the district’s negotiation team is relatively new, officials must consider not only members’ current contributions but what they have given up in the past. In 2012, 32BJ agreed to millions in concessions to stave off layoffs during a financial crisis.

The lowest-paid 32BJ workers, cleaners, make about $16,000 annually; the highest paid, building construction inspectors, earn about $70,000.