Shareholders to vote against First over US union recognition

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The Independent Online

Britain's biggest transport company is facing serious unrest among major shareholders over its record of human rights in the US.

In defiance of the board at First Group, a number of investors are voting for a motion that will go before the company's annual meeting on Thursday urging compliance with principles laid down by the UN's International Labour Organisation.

The resolution has been tabled after allegations that employees at First Student, the subsidiary operating yellow school buses in the US, have faced intimidation and dismissal for seeking to win union rights.

The Co-operative Insurance Society, the TUC's superannuation fund and at least one other investor will be voting for the motion, while a number of others with no links with the labour movement will be abstaining. One institutional investor said it would abstain on the basis that while it had received written commitments about the company's labour policies in the US, it would be "watching what happens".

More than 100 employees in Britain with shares in the company will be voting in favour of the motion.

Sheila Wactor, a bus driver working for First Student in Baltimore, claimed that some of her colleagues had been threatened, others had seen their hours cut and some had been dismissed for involvement in the union. Ms Wactor, who began to organise a union at her workplace, alleged: "Some colleagues are so afraid they would not talk to me." She claimed the company had inundated employees with anti-union propaganda, both in the workplace and at home. "They do everything in their power to make sure we do not have a voice," she said.

Dean Phinney, the driver of a yellow school bus from Iowa City, said Moir Lockhead, the chief executive of First Group, was wrong when he ascribed anti-union attitudes to a few "rogue" managers. "This is the company norm," he claimed. "We are not against the company. We tried to work with them and we want the company to do well, but when they make profits on the back of employees it's just not right."

Tony Hill, a Florida state senator who has campaigned for better conditions for First Student workers in Jacksonville, said: "Workers in the US deserve the respect and dignity that First employees receive here."

A First spokeswoman said the group's code of ethics and equal opportunities already covered the points in the motion. She said the resolution was part of a campaign by the Service Employees International Union and the Teamsters to win recognition at First Student. She said the company had been consulting "stakeholders" and that "some will abstain, some will vote for the motion and others will vote with the company".

First Group has argued that 40 per cent of its 32,000 employees in the US were union members and that union recognition would always be granted where workers voted for it in a secret ballot. It argued that some $15m (£8m) was being spent by unions to undermine its business in the US.