Durham: Charleston wage increase demands 'beyond reason'

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) - Durham officials said in a press conference Wednesday that negotiators for the bus company and the Teamsters union were slowly coming together on salary increases.

Chairman of Durham School Services John Elliott said the union's first salary request was for a $1.50-per-hour increase in pay but after negotiations Wednesday morning, the request had dropped to $1 per hour, or a roughly 8 percent increase.

Elliott called the request "beyond reason."

"It's greatly in excess. The three percent is more than reasonable, more than fair," he said. "But reasonableness is a relative term."

The bus company is offering a 45-cent increase, or a three percent raise.

"We hope that brings us to a closure," he said. "Negotiation relies upon two parties acting in consort and we can't push them."

According to Elliott, the average school bus driver salary is $14.40 per hour in Charleston County and $14.56 in Beaufort County. The highest-paid driver in Charleston County makes $19 per hour. The highest paid driver in Beaufort County is paid $19.25 per hour.

Elliot said negotiations with the union started in July, adding that the union had only as recently as 45 days ago submitted requests for a salary increase. In that time, Elliott said, the two sides have had 15 negotiating sessions.

According to Elliott, the bus company has been working with the districts where drivers are threatening to strike to develop a contingency plan. He said there are 470 union drivers in the three systems - Charleston, Dorchester and Beaufort counties - and while the bus company cannot replace all of the drivers in the event of a strike, they are offering to bring in some replacement drivers. The bus company has plans to bring in fully licensed out-of-state drivers in the event of a strike, he said.

Driver training staff have also been brought in to accelerate the training new drivers undertake. He said the trainers started arriving Monday and will continue coming into the Charleston area through the weekend.

"We have never had a strike. We have had negotiations that go to the brink, but never a work stoppage," Elliott said.

Elliott said he did not know where the rumors of Monday's strike started, but said if a strike does happen it would be due to the actions of the union.

He added that it would be "highly unusual" for a strike to happen while the two sides are in negotiations. He also said it was equally important that a deal is reached in all three counties.

"I think it is a good thing that we're talking with the hope of reaching a resolution," Elliott said.

Elliot said the bus company decided to hold a press conference after seeing that members of the union were telling their side to the media. He said Durham officials preferred dealing directly with union administrators.

"If the stories are going to be told, let's make sure both sides are out there," Elliott said.

Beaufort County drivers meet Thursday with the bus company.

"We haven't been in this situation in the past. The longer it goes, the more difficult it is," he said.