AFT, UAW call for union-built electric school buses

The American Federation of Teachers has joined the United Auto Workers in calling on school districts to electrify the nation’s school bus fleet. Cities and counties can use seed money provided by the Biden administration to accelerate the rollout of union-built electric school buses, AFT President Randi Weingarten said during a news conference on May 31 in Washington, D.C. She called the rollout a “win-win-win” for children’s health, for the climate and for the economy.

Electric buses

“After a week like last week,” Weingarten said, referring to the massacre of schoolchildren and teachers in Uvalde, Texas, “it’s pretty remarkable to have a press conference that shows you what is possible.”

Introduced by Washington Teachers’ Union President Jacqueline Pogue Lyons, Weingarten said the nation needs more union jobs. We need to make sure these electric buses are made in America at unionized factories. We need to ensure that students and drivers are protected from environmental hazards. We need to address the climate crisis. “And now we have an administration that actually cares about these things,” she said.

Weingarten emphasized that this effort is not intended to remove diesel buses from the road immediately, but to begin a gradual evolution to carbon-free emissions.

Right now, about half a million yellow school buses across America generate more than 5 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions every year. The pollutants from their tailpipes contribute to asthma and other respiratory conditions among students and drivers—especially in communities already contaminated through environmental injustice.

But the Biden administration, through a bipartisan infrastructure law passed last year, is collaborating with state and local governments on starting the transition to electric school buses. Already, the first thousand vehicles in a new line of union-built EV school buses are making their way across the country.

AFT member Charlie Jones, who drives a school bus and is president of the Bethlehem Central United Employees Association in New York’s Capital District near Albany, N.Y., said he likes being a member of New York State United Teachers because it gives him a platform to talk about how to make students’ lives better by getting them to school safely and on time.

The buses we have now are good—the safest in the world—but we can do better, Jones said. Without any exhaust fumes, all-electric buses will pay dividends for generations.

Think about that, Weingarten added: Children riding on union-built and union-driven buses, arriving safely at union-taught schools.

UAW President Ray Curry introduced other partners in this effort, including the Sierra Club, a longtime AFT partner in the BlueGreen Alliance, which unites labor unions with environmental organizations. Curry said he wants to see electric buses not only in a handful of cities but in every school district in the country—for “a future that all of us can thrive in.” The workers who build these vehicles need a voice on the job, he said, so that each bus will be built to union standards.

Curry admired the gleaming public school next door, saying he’d happily go back to elementary school in a building like that—to which Weingarten jumped in and invited him to become a public school teacher after he retires.

Rounding out the speakers was Candida Garcia, a member of CHISPA (meaning “spark” in Spanish), a Latinx outgrowth of the Maryland League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. Garcia said one of her four children has asthma, requiring emergency hospital visits and lost school days. Many Latinx kids miss school because of respiratory troubles, she said in Spanish.

“We need clean air,” she told the crowd. “We need electric school buses, and we need good union jobs. Together, we can create the future our children deserve.”

[Annette Licitra]