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Unions, school bus company, trade blame in Las Cruces strike

October 28, 2021 GMT
School bus drivers strike in front their employer's building in Las Cruces, N.M., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. School bus drivers in Las Cruces have gone on strike, shutting down much of the public school transportation system that serves 3,500 students. (Nathan J. Fish/The Las Cruces Sun News via AP)
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School bus drivers strike in front their employer's building in Las Cruces, N.M., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. School bus drivers in Las Cruces have gone on strike, shutting down much of the public school transportation system that serves 3,500 students. (Nathan J. Fish/The Las Cruces Sun News via AP)
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School bus drivers strike in front their employer's building in Las Cruces, N.M., on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. School bus drivers in Las Cruces have gone on strike, shutting down much of the public school transportation system that serves 3,500 students. (Nathan J. Fish/The Las Cruces Sun News via AP)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Unions and a school bus company blame each other for a school bus driver strike that shut down much of the public school transportation serving 3,500 students in Las Cruces.

Drivers picketed the office of southern New Mexico district school bus contractor STS New Mexico on Thursday, demanding better pay and working conditions, the Las Cruces Sun-News reports.

Bus driver shortages have strained schools across the state, as education officials struggle to hire and train more workers. Some offer free training, signing bonuses and other perks for new employees.

The shortage has led the company to push mechanics into driving service, meaning there aren’t mechanics to fix buses when they break down, a bus driver union representative told the Sun-News.

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“We’re just going to do the best that we can do,” STS General Manager Van Wamel told the paper.

District officials told parents by text message Thursday to “please make alternative transportation arrangements if possible.”

A coalition of unions representing school workers said the the bus company is responsible for its strike, and suggested it would end Friday.

“Today’s one-day unfair labor practice strike was avoidable, but due to the continued failure of STS-NM to meet our demands surrounding student safety, worker dignity, and fair treatment of employees, the Las Cruces Transportation Federation regrettably was forced to take this drastic action,” said local union president Dean Abrams.

Abrams said negotiations began in July.

The school also notified parents Wednesday evening, said spokeswoman Kelly Jameson, adding that children who cannot make it to school will be provided online work and an excused absence.

The bus company is pinning culpability for the shutdown on the union, saying the group increased wages over the past two years and a new demand for increased pay “makes it difficult to reach a fair and reasonable agreement.”

“We truly regret the inconvenience the union strike has caused and are doing everything we can to continue providing service to our students,” said Joshua Weinstock, spokesman for The Kincaid Group, which operates STS in Las Cruces.

Jameson said that special education students with transportation specified in their individualized learning plans won’t be affected by the strike.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.