July 28, 2023

Local 1275 brings politics into play

For years, the school bus drivers of AFSCME Local 1275 had their demands for fairness blockaded by the Rockford Board of Education, which was, at best, dismissive of their concerns. At worst, the board was openly hostile to their needs.

“Truthfully, morale was down,” said Catina Barnett, Local 1275’s president. “We felt used. We’re the ones the students see first and last, but the district didn’t see it like that. They looked at us as an interchangeable part, not an insight into the children’s needs.”

The employees decided they wouldn’t take it anymore. Before the April municipal elections, the local union put together a plan to elect school board members who were sympathetic to the problems they were facing. They interviewed prospective candidates and made recommendations through the Council 31 PEOPLE program.

Every Saturday for two-and-a-half months leading up to the election, union members would grill out at the Rockford Labor Temple before hitting the streets to educate voters on their preferred school board candidates.

When all was said and done, every single one of the candidates recommended by the union won their elections. Shortly after the new board took office, the union began negotiating a contract extension aimed at fixing the problems that plagued their members under the former board.

Barb Hengels has been a school bus driver since she moved to Rockford to care for her aging parents seven years ago. During that time, she’s had to work three jobs just to make ends meet. Her workday started on her bus at 5:30 a.m. Between her morning and afternoon bus routes, she’d take a shift at her second job. And her workday would end at 10 p.m. after she had finished her third job of the day.

“Now, my one job is enough. I don’t have to do that anymore. I can actually sleep at night,” Hengels said.

Hengels was a member of the bargaining committee. Everyone on the committee was close to one another, but Hengels was particularly close to one member of the committee: her daughter, Elizabeth Peck.

Peck became a school bus driver at the urging of her mother, who sits on the local union executive board, and followed in her footsteps by running for secretary shortly after she became a member.

“Me and my mom talk a lot. We were able to bounce ideas off each other,” Peck said. “We could shoot each other a look in bargaining and could communicate with each other just through that look.”

In the final contract that was overwhelmingly ratified by the members of Local 1275, they won a 26% increase to the starting wage for new drivers, and that new increase scales up fairly depending on how much experience a new hire has.

Wage increases for current employees will rise 18–25% depending on the step. Critically, the new extension freezes health insurance premiums; before, wage increases were often swallowed up by health insurance cost hikes. Also, if a member accrues more than 15 sick days, they may use them during winter and spring breaks to help ease the burden of not being paid during those times.

“At the end of the day, without unions we have nothing,” Barnett said. “When everybody works together, you get what you deserve.”

The bargaining committee was led by Council 31 Staff Representative Sara Dorner and included Barnett, Hengels, Peck, Leah Robinson, Nicole Allen, Linda Ace, Kristy Lee and Sue Miller.

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