Chris Crowe, left, carries a sign during the protest by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1212 in front of First Student in Dalton on Monday, May 15, 2023. Crowe is vice president of ATU Local 1212.

Chris Crowe, left, carries a sign during the protest by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1212 in front of First Student in Dalton on Monday, May 15, 2023. Crowe is vice president of ATU Local 1212.

Credit: Matt Hamilton / Chattanooga Times Free Press

After a week of walking the picket line, the union for Dalton Public Schools bus drivers accepted a contract Friday afternoon with the private company that operates transportation for the school district.

“For the first time ever, our members stood the line. Our voices were heard,” Lakecha Strickland, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1212, said in a phone call. “We carry the people, we carry the power.”

The new three-year contract with the private contractor, First Student of Cincinnati, includes wage increases, paid vacation days for the first time, a retention bonus, a new grievance procedure, a better seniority system and other improvements, according to a statement from the union posted on its website.

Union members voted overwhelmingly to accept the new contract, the union release said. The district’s bus drivers voted to join the union in December.

Contract negotiations began in March, and about 40 bus drivers went on strike Monday, complaining that First Student canceled summer work in a retaliatory action against some of Dalton’s union organizers. The union still plans to pursue an unfair labor practices complaint for that and other actions by the company, according to the release.

Dalton Public Schools classes were held online Monday and in person the rest of the week, district officials said in a post on their website.

In an email, First Student confirmed the union accepted its offer presented Thursday night during negotiations. Earlier in the day, Jen Biddinger, communications manager for First Student, said the contract was the company’s last, best and final offer.

After the offer was accepted, Biddinger expressed gratitude.

“First Student wants to thank Dalton Public Schools and their families for their patience and understanding during this process,” she said. “We look forward to getting back to focusing fully on what we do best, providing safe and reliable transportation.”

The union’s accusations about anti-union practices were without merit, Biddinger said in an email earlier this week.

Dalton Public Schools has contracted with First Student for more than 20 years and had no role in the negotiations between the company and union, Superintendent Tim Scott said in a video statement earlier this week.

The district in a Facebook post Wednesday thanked its 19 bus drivers who stayed on to drive during the strike. The post attracted more than 400 comments, some expressing thanks for those bus drivers who stayed on during the strike, others expressing support for the bus drivers who went on strike for better wages and benefits.

Trina Russell, a single mother and parent of students in the Dalton district, said in a Facebook message that it’s been hard getting her children back and forth to three different schools.

“The kids should be the No. 1 priority to drivers, and them doing this shows they are not,” Russell said about the striking bus drivers. “I just hope they can get a new staff together that cares about the children and how important their education is.”

The Dalton resident also said the bus drivers who stayed on to drive during the strike deserve a raise and acknowledgment.

In a Facebook message, Dalton resident Gabriel Skelly said she supported the bus drivers who went on strike. Skelly also said she switched her students to virtual while the drivers were out.

“I just believe that we are putting our kids’ lives in their hands twice a day,” she said. “They deserve to be compensated as much as we trust them.”

During the strike, the school district set up locations in the community for students who needed a ride, Pat Holloway, chief of staff for Dalton Public Schools, said in an email.

Despite the strike, attendance has been good, with students getting to school through private transportation or riding the buses still available, Holloway said.

This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.