US mayor backs union recognition campaign against FirstGroup

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The Independent Online

A US mayor who is also a Democratic gubernatorial candidate has stepped into an increasingly bitter trade union recognition battle - urging the British transport company FirstGroup to grant the same rights to its American workers as it does to its UK employees.

Martin O'Malley, the mayor of Baltimore and Democratic candidate for Governor of Maryland in November's election, said it would be wrong for the company to hold different standards on either side of the Atlantic. He urged all management officials to treat workers fairly rather than engage in "breaking unions or bashing unions or busting unions".

"If they respect workers' rights on [one] side of the Atlantic, they should respect workers' rights on the other," he told The Independent following a union organising meeting in his city. "If [workers] vote to join a union, it's incumbent on the company to look to them and negotiate fairly and deal with them."

His comments come as Baltimore school bus drivers employed by a US subsidiary of FirstGroup vote today on whether to be represented by the Teamsters union. The company, FirstStudent, has recently been targeted by a nationwide organising campaign by the Teamsters and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) which has accused the company of poor wages and benefits. It has also accused the company of intimidating workers.

One Baltimore driver, Sheila Wactor, said she had been penalised and intimidated by the company since she expressed interest in joining the union in January. "Last year, there was no hassle," she said. "They would say they want more people like me."

Other workers claimed they had been fired after saying they wanted to join. "You could tell by their comments that they wanted to quieten me down," Rodney Wimbush, a former driver's assistant, said.

The company claims to hold a neutral position in relation to union membership and yet a scrapbook of anti-union material collected by the Teamsters suggests officials at FirstStudent in Baltimore had vigorously opposed the formation of a union.

A report commissioned by the Teamsters and prepared by Lance Compa, a senior lecturer at Cornell University school of Industrial and Labour Relations, said FirstStudent - which operates about 20,000 yellow school buses at 250 US locations - had "suspended, laid off, fired and refused to hire employees engaged in union activity". It concluded: "Management demonstrates a centrally coordinated strategy to block workers' freedom of association by a pattern of interference."

The situation in the US is in stark contrast to that in the UK where FirstGroup, the UK's largest public transport group which operates buses and trains, enjoys a reasonable working relationship with unions and holds regular consultative meetings with them.

Yet British shareholder employees of FirstGroup who are members of the Transport and General Workers' Union (TGWU) have launched their own action in support of their US colleagues. A motion to be proposed at July's annual meeting will call for the adoption of a workplace human rights policy that would guarantee union rights. The TGWU is lobbying FirstGroup's major investors to support the motion.

FirstStudent failed to respond to queries, but a spokesman for FirstGroup said the company was "absolutely neutral on the position of unions. We are not for or against unions". He said management was "supposed to deliver the facts" about the union vote.

The company cited its own report by the former Labour MP and union official John Lyons which said some US managers had previously not embraced the company's "positive culture ... towards trade unions", though that had now changed. The report added: "At New Haven, Syracuse, [and] Providence, all union strongholds, there was no evidence of intimidation or harassment."