MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - To this point, the fact that troubled Durham School Services is a property of National Express Group, a United Kingdom company, didn't make any difference.
That changed Wednesday night -- as two Labor Party members of Britain's Parliament whipped up a group of Teamsters sympathizers at First Congregational Church, 1000 Cooper St., for a collective bargaining agreement to improve Durham drivers' working conditions, wages and hours.
Ian Lavery and Jim Sheridan, both current or former union leaders and members of Britain's House of Commons, said they have investigated Durham School Services' on-going problems in Shelby County. They've concluded most of them are to blame on a hostile work environment, in which drivers are discouraged from filing grievances or from expressing their concerns about multiple routes.
"A lot of them are frightened to come forward in case of intimidation, in case of losing their jobs, in case of being given less hours," Lavery said.
Twenty-one-year-veteran driver Wanda Alberson, who is one of approximately 400 Durham drivers in Shelby County who are members of Teamsters Local 984, said she's never been intimidated. But she said she's stretched to the limit in a break-neck pace to fill three morning bus routes for three separate Shelby County schools: White Station High School, Shady Grove Elementary School and Avon Lenox School.
"Three schools within three hours," she told the group. "I know I can't do that."
An on-going WMC Action News 5 investigation revealed Durham School Services drivers in Shelby County have been involved in 251 accidents -- from run-ins with fire hydrants to major crashes with minor injuries -- in the last three years. Drivers have been involved in more than 40 accidents or incidents since the current school year started -- including drivers with drug charges, violent felony histories and motor vehicle violations.
Our investigation also revealed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has not conducted a full comprehensive review of Durham's operations since 2007.
"That would be inconceivable (for a motor carrier) in the U.K.," said Sheridan. He said he was in the United States as recently as two years ago to address safety concerns with Durham. It's the second largest school bus carrier in America, serving almost 400 school districts.
The British politicians joined forces with interfaith workers' rights groups to demand that Durham "come to the table" and negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the local Teamsters union to improve working conditions and wages.
"The workers have wanted to speak out," said Jeshua Schuster, organizing director of Workers Interfaith Network. "The people of the community have wanted to speak out, and Durham has closed its doors."
"We have multiple channels through which our employees can openly and freely share ideas, concerns and questions with local management, and they do just that," said Carina Noble, vice president of communications and external affairs for Durham's North American subsidiary National Express in Warrenville, IL.
"This event has little, if anything, to do with our operations in and around Shelby County; rather, it is an attempt by the national Teamsters leadership to exert pressure on our company," Noble said. "Our relationship with our dedicated drivers is outstanding; our relationship with the national Teamsters leadership is not. We will continue to focus on getting our students to school safely, on time and ready to learn."
Feb. 2, Shelby County Council PTA President Terri Harris called for Shelby County Schools and the six municipal districts to fire Durham for sub-standard safety and driver violations, including a driver's termination for a hit-and-run while driving his Durham bus.