Bus employees who drive the Onteora Central School District’s students and who are employed with Birnie bus, an outside contractor, sought support from the Board of Education as they work toward unionization.
More than a dozen employees from the Shokan garage attended the board’s meeting at Phoenicia Elementary School on March 5, with a handful speaking during public commentary. Driver John Mocarski said the employees are organizing to, “have a voice on the job, ensure that we are treated with dignity and respect for our work, become partners in promoting and ensuring safe transportation and working conditions at the Shokan garage.” Since Birnie took over from Arthur F. Mulligan, Mocarski said, “our jobs have gotten worse.” The employees state that a majority of their workers have signed union authorization cards with the Civil Service Employee Association (CSEA).
Some of the drivers spoke about living in the district. “We are concerned that our tax dollars are being used to bust our union,” said school bus driver Ellen Colangelo, explaining that the employees are now required to attend meetings held by the Russ Brown and Associates, an anti-union firm. According to the Russ Brown website, preventunion.com, the company is an “expert in the art of persuasion, group dynamics and motivation.” It boasts a “near perfect success rate,” at preventing unions from forming. According to Colangelo the firm was hired for over $190,000 to “fight the bus workers in Utica, New York.” Colangelo spoke of other action. “Also, we recently filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board, (NLRB) claiming that our coworker was terminated illegally for protected union activity.”
Joan Freer has been a driver for 32 years, four of which have been with Birnie. Those four years contain the reason why she now chooses to unionize. “Will the district please require its transportation contractor, Birnie Bus, to respect our rights and stop the union busting pressure campaign?” said Freer. Later towards the end of the meeting, School Board President Ann McGillicuddy asked, “I was wondering how to respond to our bus drivers?” She explained that a driver phoned her seeking support from the board.
Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Spiegel-McGill suggested counsel with district lawyers. “As part of that, were in a contractual relationship, so I think we need guidance on that.” Trustee Rob Kurnit wanted more. “If that’s the case then I would like some kind of an investigation as to the ethics Birnie is operating on,” he said. McGill replied, “I hear what you’re saying, but I’m saying that we need to find the parameters of that.”
According to the 2012/2013 district budget, Onteora transportation contracts total $2.8 million with an overall district transportation budget of $3.8 million. Onteora employs 21 union transportation workers. According to CSEA representative Jill Asencio, there are 60 Birnie employees at the Shokan site. She noted Birnie employees in Oneonta have also organized.