How Outsourcing Threatens America’s Safety

Jerri-Lynn here. Neoliberalism fetishizes outsourcing – which inevitably leads to deterioration in the quality of services. School bus drivers in Bay City, Michigan, are not going quietly, and have pushed back  – so far, successfully – to try and rescue their union jobs.

By Tom Conway, the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW). Produced by the Independent Media Institute

Early in the school year, a kindergartner on Joni Meyer’s school bus got motion sickness and threw up all over himself—and his brother, his cousin and his laptop.

Meyer pulled over, soothed the anguished child, cleaned everybody up as best she could and then drove the bus to school.

Over 34 years, Meyer has served as chauffeur, counselor, confidant, nurse and guardian angel to countless children like these in Bay City, Michigan. She’s skillfully navigated a 35-foot, 14-ton bus over serpentine roads and through treacherous winter storms, safely delivering what she calls “our precious cargo” to schools and football games. Now, in gratitude for Meyer’s dedication, officials in the Bay City Public Schools intend to kick her to the curb.

The school district recently notified Meyer and her 25 coworkers, represented by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7380, of plans to eliminate their jobs and outsource transportation to a for-profit company. By continuing down this road, they’ll join the ranks of shortsighted employers who auction off crucial services to the lowest bidders, potentially saving a few bucks but gambling on safety.

Out-of-town drivers will never know Bay City’s rural roads or care about the community’s 8,150 students like Meyer and her coworkers, some of whom log upward of 150 miles during workdays that—because of split shifts—begin at 5 a.m. and end 12 hours later.

“I really enjoy my job. I enjoy my children. They’re sort of like extended family to us,” said Meyer, Local 7380’s unit president and the district’s second-most-senior driver, who wonders where a private contractor would even find replacements.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts around the country have struggled to recruit and retain drivers. Because of the shortage, some districts closed schools or cut service while others called in the National Guard for help, put teachers behind the wheel or paid parents to transport their own kids. So far this year, bus companies contracted by one Maryland school district missed more than 3,000 trips, leaving hundreds of students and parents in the lurch.

Bay City already has the dedicated, reliable workforce that other school districts crave. Teachers, elected officials, other community leaders and parents are rallying around the drivers, demanding the school district keep them on the job and avert the potential nightmare contracting out would bring.

“It’s terribly sad and unfortunate and quite disappointing because it’s going to rock these kids’ boats. Some of these kids come from homes that aren’t really stable. This is one stable thing they have in their lives,” Kristin McDonell, a Bay City parent, said of district drivers. “I trust these drivers. They’re part of our backbone. It means a lot to them to be contributing to their community in this way.”

“The school district is not putting the children’s best interests first,” added McDonell, who worries about whether contractors would properly train their employees or provide the same drivers on a daily basis, let alone find candidates willing to “invest their whole heart in the job” like Meyer and her colleagues. “From what I’ve read, outsourcing usually does not end very well. It’s a rocky road.”

The Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission recently approved a $198,000 settlement with a school bus contractor that racked up 396 violations, including failure to screen drivers for drugs, while officials in other parts of the country have contended with contract drivers who drank alcohol on the job and left a child behind at the bus garage at the end of the run.

As horrifying as these incidents are, they only begin to describe the consequences of privatization the public faces every day. Outsourcing imperils safety and quality in numerous other fields—across the public, nonprofit and private sectors—because contractors put the money motive ahead of all else.

Studies show that profit-driven private prisons lock people up for longer periods and experience higher rates of violence, among otherproblems, compared to government-run facilities. Municipalities that privatized their water systems saddled residents with poorer service, along with other setbacks, and universities that outsourced security and cafeteria jobs created low-wage shadow workforces, exacerbating inequality in their communities.

“Choose wisely, because cheaper does not mean better. You get what you pay for,” cautioned Tyson Bagley, president of USW Local 326, who’s worked to end the contracting out of maintenance workers at the Phillips 66 refinery in Rodeo, California.

When he joined the refinery about 10 years ago, only a fraction of maintenance workers belonged to the union because the company preferred to rely on contractors. But that led to quality-control and safety problems in what’s already a hazardous environment, Bagley said, noting contract workers had little investment in the work because they might be assigned to the refinery one day and another location the next.

In 2015, the USW and the company began collaborating to bring maintenance work back in-house. Now, most maintenance personnel are USW members, and “our quality control has been almost perfect,” Bagley said.

“We’re the best trained, safest workers,” he explained of his union siblings. “We know the facility. We know the equipment. This is our house. We’re going to make sure it’s done right.”

Meyer and her coworkers are circulating petitions, walking informational picket lines and taking other steps to save safe, dependable bus transportation in Bay City.

Their supporters, like McDonell, warn that outsourcing will only disrupt the district’s family atmosphere and create new headaches, especially for parents fearful of putting their children in the care of rented drivers.

“It’s a bad deal,” McDonell said. “It’s wrong. It’s totally wrong.”

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  1. Altandmain

    A lot of the so called savings from privatization are from the paying of workers lower wages, and other corner cutting.

    Ultimately the problem is that the private sector is profit oriented. While that can sometimes lead to innovation, in a lot of cases, it also leads to unethical activities.

    A lot of the criticism towards the public sector is driven by those who want to make money on public services and public assets.

    About the only case where I’ve seen privatization work somewhat is Japan. It is not comparable, because there are tight rules and social norms in Japan that do not exist in the Western world. Far more likely is that there is to be a repeat of what happened to Russian assets in the 1990s where the super rich oligarchs looted them and got rich at the public expense.

    If anything, a large number of public services should be nationalized or provided by the public.

    1. Bart Hansen

      After ‘oligarchs’ add ‘and academic plunderers from Harvard and Chicago Universities’

    2. digi_owl

      Japan still have this concept of “giri” passed down from their feudal days, though it is quickly fading among the younger generations.

      It is basically an idea of reciprocal responsibilities. That as the worker (tenant farmers originally, company employees these days) dedicate their life to the employer, so to will the employer reciprocate by taking care of their workers.

      One example of this was some years back when the CEO of Japan Airlines started taking the same shuttle bus and eating in the office cantina as a show of solidarity, while taking measures to avoid having to fire people during a slump.

      I also wonder how much these things are driven by accounting rules, in that outsourcing public services removes all manner of wage expenses and related costs off the books and replace them with a negotiated services fee.

      Meaning that all this is in the end is a high wire accounting act that in the end makes the situation look more rosy than it is for the municipal economy.

  2. .human

    Neoliberalism fetishizes outsourcing maximizing profits.

    Fixed it for ya Jerri-Lynn.

    Where are the parents in this? Who is the school board? Why is there no legitimate, effective, community input?

    1. chris

      It depends a lot on how these decisions are made. Parents typically do not get a lot of say in how schools hire janitorial staff, for example. Also, in a lot of school districts, the discussions about budgets are separate from the meetings about policy which occur at a different time than the vote on whether or not to initiate a new contract for transportation services. So unless you’re a person with a lot of time and dedication to a particular topic it is hard to follow everything and be aware of what you need to involve yourself in to prevent things like this from happening.

      It’s also the kind of thing that isn’t unusual these days. Why would you expect parents to argue over the kind of thing that’s become so common? If I’m a parent with a special needs kid, for example, do you think I’m going to invest my energy fighting for better funding for IEP services or busing?

      As for effective community input, just look into what companies like the Howard Hughes Corporation have done. They infiltrate the community, influence school board votes, and support “independent journalists” who parrot their preferred opinions. Let’s also not forget that busing is a difficult topic in schools to begin with. I haven’t seen the prior contracts or discussions in this instance, but based on my experience with several different school systems in different states, I can imagine how you could have come at this topic from either side of a racial disparity to get the desired result of outsourcing. For example, gaslighting or accusing the union of being racist and that the school system would have more control over busing options with an independent non-Union contractor. Or, accusing a union of being in favor of busing kids to different schools to address equality in funding issues, in which case the community just wants the busing service to do as it’s told and not involve themselves in racial issues. That’s how you get school systems to agree to contracts that serve to enrich the contractor and don’t perform as promised.

      There’s too much guaranteed funding available for companies to not try to game the system and get these contracts. There’s too many barriers for parents and other community representatives to effectively prevent the companies from getting access to the school officials who can dole out these contracts. There’s too many other things for parents of students to worry about to fight every battle, every year, on all fronts. So bit by bit, it all goes away. Like a constant tide eroding a beach.

      1. .human

        I’d forgotten that when I was on my community’s school budget oversight board in the ’90’s, we were told that we were not to look into wages and salaries. We did anyway.

      2. Duke of Prunes

        I don’t think it takes a lot to move towards the outsourcing “solution”. It’s all about the money. School boards never seen to have enough money so they are always looking for ways to save money that don’t impact the curriculum. Janitors, bus services, etc are easy pickings. We went through this with janitorial services at my local district. Luckily, the word got out, and a packed school board meeting convinced them to save money elsewhere.

        The busing was outsourced long ago. Now, there are issues finding drivers because of the odd hours and low pay. My kids usually walked.

        1. Carla

          “School boards never seen to have enough money so they are always looking for ways to save money that don’t impact the curriculum.”

          Yet administrative bloat is a huge problem at every level of education. Perhaps they could look at that. In our local school system, the Finance Director, who’s been in his position for 30 years, really runs everything. Although our schools have been racially integrated for all that time and the student body is now about 80 percent African American, the Finance Director lives 15 miles away in a wealthy all-white suburb with property tax rates that are half of our city, where 20% of residents live below the poverty line.

          BTW, because this is in the great state of Ohio, our school buses and their union drivers transport mostly students attending private and parochial schools, all at the expense of the public system. That’s right. And most of the public school kids either walk or are driven to school by their parents. Oh, and those private and parochial school students? They get tuition vouchers that also come out of public school budgets.

          Great little kleptocracy we’ve got goin’ here.

  3. Eclair

    Jamestown, NY, a decaying former industrial city, but one that has held on to its municipal power plant rather than selling it off to a large regional power corporation, is now on its way to becoming the first NY city to create a municipal broadband service.

    The new mayor believes that a low-cost internet connection should be a public service. Opposition comes, of course, from the current local for-profit providers, Windstream and Spectrum. Spectrum, bless their black hearts, lures one in with a low teaser rate, then raises it with additional monthly charges.

    The city is notable for having lower electric rates than the for-profit National Grid that supplies the surrounding area. The city also maintains its own public water and sewer service, as well as trash pick-up We are located in a neighboring town, with the freedom to dig our own well (as well as test and soften the water so it does not mineralize and result in hardening of the arteries in the pipes) maintain our own septic tank field, and truck our trash to the county Transfer Center. Or, as some residents do, burn it or dump it in the woods adjoining the back forty.

    1. ambrit

      Keep an eye on those “experts” ‘working’ at City Hall. Where we used to live, down on the Gulf Coast, you can no longer burn your own trash, as in yard cuttings, rotten tree parts, etc. You now have to truck it to the landfill, at your own expense. Outdoor campfire style events now have to be restricted to burn areas surrounded by non flammable materials; gravel, flagstones, sand, etc., on your own property.
      Old time Conservative Nuttcases, (remember them?,) used to moan and warn about the ‘Nanny State.’ I have lived long enough to see the actual thing evolve. This being the terminal phase of the Neo-liberal Dispensation, said ‘Nanny State’ is heavily infested with for profit parasites.
      This will not end well.

      1. chris

        I admire your optimism that it will end.

        I would have thought we’d see some kind of massive outburst that couldn’t be ignored or co-opted before now. But if the US citizenry is OK with 1 million dead from COVID and is fine with supporting another war of choice, in face of the housing and food costs we now see? I can’t imagine what could possibly break whatever dam is holding back the rioters now. But whatever it is, Joe Biden should be thanking it in his prayers every day. Because it is the only thing keeping him from being known as a worse president than Herbert Hoover.

        1. drumlin woodchuckles

          How do you know the US citizenry is OK with 1 million dead and counting from Covid? How do you know they are fine with another recreational war? How do you know they just haven’t learned by now the lessons in learned hopelessness which the establishment has been working to teach them?

          Or perhaps half the citizens are fine with it all and the other half the citizens would take action against it all if they had a genuine suite of methods to torture the government and the establishment into doing something else.

          People who “want change for the better” might try educating themselves on the kind of direct methods advocated and/or described by “anonymous” and “global guerillas” and other experts in the field of directly torturing the relevant parts of the enemy into surrendering to the direct-torture-applicators’ methods. How do you get change from the government or the establishment or whichever other enemy you are dealing with? You torture them into making the change you need from them. That only works if you have enough co-torturers to where you actually can torture the government into compliance or into a state of ” social organ failure” which would lead to eventual systemic or institutional death on the part of the government ( or whichever other enemy you are targetting to make change).

          So . . . in the case of Bay City, Michigan . . . how many parents actually value having the Union professional school bus drivers on the job? How many of those parents would be able to private-school or home-school their children if the bus driving got outsourced? Would enough parents be able to private-school or home-school their chidlren to where they could reduce funding to the school district to where the district would run out of money and go into roach motel liquidation if those parents all withdrew their children on a permanent basis? If enough parents would do that to be able to exterminate the Bay City School District if they did that, then they have the real-world basis for making a genuinely credible threat to exterminate the Bay City School District if that District outsources the bus driving. And if they had the credible basis for making that threat, then they could go ahead and make it. And if the Bay City District would rather die than keep the bus driving Union and In House, then the credible-threat parents would have to genuinely follow through and take their children out of Bay City District, and let Bay City District die, if indeed Bay City District would rather die.

          That wouldn’t be as good an outcome as successfully keeping the bus driving Unionised and in house, but at least it would terrify other districts with the vision of also going extinct if they also try to outsource their bus driving.

          1. chris

            With respect to your first question, I can take the response of my peers, my colleagues, my family, my community, and the drum beat of articles on NC as evidence that no one seems to care about the 1 million COVID dead. No one will pay a political cost for it. I guess that shouldn’t surprise given how we treat people who die because they’re poor, or have AIDS, or lack healthcare. If you can find evidence that proves me wrong, I would be happier. As it stands now I think those in authority and those in the media are well served by not making a big deal about 1 million dead. Especially because that milestone occurred on Biden’s watch.

            As for Bay City and what options they may have, here’s the Census page on the city. Doesn’t look like many of those people have a lot of options. They’re probably very open to saving money too. Losing the unionized bus drivers is something they may not care about until it’s too late.

            1. Skunk

              It’s blame the victim. If you had the misfortune to die, it’s because you had co-morbidities or let yourself get old. Shame on you. That’s how the death toll has been portrayed.

      2. Eclair

        Ambrit, I have no problem with bans on the constant burning of household trash. However, when the local government touts ‘low taxes’ and then provides no trash collection services, putting the burden of disposing of trash on individual residents, which actually discriminates against older people and those who do not drive, then it can become a problem. And, people ignore the burn ban because enforcement incurs a cost for the local government. And, most yard waste and cuttings should not be burned, but left to decompose. Unless they are invasive species.

        And, as I pointed out, the Jamestown municipal electric system provides power at a lower cost than the regional for-profit corporation. And has for decades. The surrounding towns, most of which are conservative, don’t provide services, such as trash pickup, but do the nanny state thing and impose burn bans, which they don’t enforce, etc., etc.

        So, I guess I am confused by your comment

        1. ambrit

          Thinking it through, I believe that that “previous me” was bemoaning the continual gentrification of the Gulf Coast. The phased introduction of “personal responsibility” concerning what were once public services not only feeds the parasite class, or kleptocrats, or whatever we want to call them (the basic outcome of such “privitization” is corruption,) but it also winnows out the low income population cohorts in the region. If you cannot afford the fees and taxes, you have to move.
          The, I suppose, clandestine goal of this is to ‘engineer’ a local population of higher income households; in other words, Gentrification. At the high altitude viewpoint, it all becomes a program of creating PMC “Echo Chambers.”
          “We must make sure that only the “right sort” of person lives in ‘our’ neighborhood.”
          By increasing the cost of living in a region, you perform a sort of “social engineering.” Financial ability becomes the touchstone upon which all decisions are based. In other words, Neo-liberalism.
          On the burn ban enforcement front, the County has addressed this issue by, first, tasking the local Fire Department with enforcement. Now, whenever someone, and there is always a busybody ready to enforce compliance with ‘local’ rules, calls in a fire report, the Fire Department is legally obligated to respond. If said fire is over two feet tall, (I kid you not,) the Fire Department is legally obligated to put it out. The ‘busybody factor’ is the subtle enforcement goad working to keep the Fire Department “honest” in it’s responses. Then, in the ultimate piece of Neo-liberal torture, the homeowner of the spot where the fire was encountered is sent a bill by and for the Fire Department for it’s actions. I don’t know how those “fines” are distributed among the various “official” actors involved, but, as Civil Asset Forfeiture has shown, corruption is the end result.
          As Lambert is known to say; “Burn it with fire.” In this instance, I vote for beginning the process at the City Hall. After all, during the ‘infamous’ French Revolution, one of the major actions consistantly undertaken by the “mobs,” was the burmning of the local “official” property ownership records.
          As for the recent commentary concerning the “breaking point,” and how to spot it, I’ll opine that physical hunger is generally a major contributing factor in “robust” civil disorder. This fall and next spring, if they are indeed ‘graced’ with massive food insecurity for the American public, we will begin to see some sort of “organic” movement on the ‘civil unrest’ front.
          What we need now is a “real” Left to emerge from ‘below’ in America to organize and exploit this pending unrest. The Right is already fairly well organized. Just look at the history of the Tea Party, it’s origins and later co-option by the American Oligarchs, for a primer on how it’s done.
          To paraphrase Henry the Second of England; “Who will rid us of these meddlesome PMCs?”
          We’re on our own, when it comes to personal safety and public ‘goods.’ We are ‘under the lash’ when it comes to private looting “opportunities.”
          Stay safe! You are the only reliable advocate you have left.

  4. E. Gates

    I bet those bus drivers get a pension as well as union representation. Elimination of that pension must be a huge «family blog» for the outsourcers.

  5. wendigo

    For public institutions outsourcing fixes the problem of income distribution, that is too much money going to people at the bottom instead of upper management and shareholders.

    For large public corporations it reduces liabilities when some operations can be handled by separate small opaque limited liability private companies.

  6. MarkT

    I look at it as a simple equation. For outsourcing to be financially beneficial to the outsourcer, the profit extracted by the outsourcee must not exceed the value of the efficiency obtained by outsourcing, else the outsourcer ends up paying more. I’ve never seen this proven. All that I see is a belief system. An ideology.

    1. ambrit

      Introduce systemic corruption into the equation and it all begins to make sense. No fell plot needed. Simple Terran human nature, especially greed, will drive the process “organically.”
      I fully agree with you concerning the ‘ideological’ nature of the Neo-liberaol Dispensation. As with all belief systems, the True Believers drive the worst excesses of the process.
      So, my formulation is: Neo-liberalism = Normalized corruption.
      Be safe!

      1. MarkT

        And you also! I suppose it all depends on one’s values. (Your ‘corruption’ is my ‘happiness’ etc.) I’ve come to believe (based on my experiences) that the whole neoliberal project is designed to promote certain character types above others. In the psychological sense. Sociopaths/psychopaths über alles? And the entire edifice rests on propaganda of the highest order.

  7. sharron

    Just as I retired as a school lunch supervisor from the 3rd largest school district in Texas, the administration outsourced the department. One year later, the district failed (for the 1st time in its’ history, due to poor training of a new dietitian) a state audit, The state assistant Ag Commissioner over the state school lunch program (a lady that hired me at the job I retired from) hates contract companies. She made the district replace the 1st company, but now the 2nd company the district chose is worse and very difficult for the inhouse compliance staff to work with. They brought in many new layers of administration and pay is very marginal compared to what the district used to pay. All in all, it is a miserable experience for the people I know remaining. Contracting is such a bad use of state funds. No matter how we tried to get the public to push back about outsourcing, the decision had been made and the board would not back down.

    1. ambrit

      The “proper” response to such institutionalozed corruption is to “liquidate” the School Board members who voted for the privatization scheme. Extreme, but we now live in “interesting times.”
      Will America have it’s own version of the Warring States Period?
      The Myth of Continual Improvement is being disproven before our very eyes.
      History can and does go “backwards.”

  8. lance ringquist

    no they were not naive, nor stupid, and they knew about 1914, greed, selfishness, and hatreds always ignore history

    new book out, free trade for dummies, as dean baker has pointed out correctly, nafta billy clinton knew free trade did not work, he did it to gut the wages of the western workers.

    the fascist prototype woodrew wilson saved free trades bacon after WWI, and set up the great depression and WWII.

    after WWII, the fascist free traders tried to push the WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION onto the winners of the war, to get the democracies suborned under free trade, thus robbing the peoples of the world their democratic control over themselves and their economies.

    thank god TRUMAN knew what the world trade organization was, the fascists who lost WWII

    truman helped to create GATT which was based on the smoot hawley tariffs which helped to get america out of the great depression

    GATT allowed democratic control of trade.

    if the elites like nafta billy clinton never have to pay for their crimes, we will get one nafta billy clinton after another.

    How the West got China so catastrophically wrong
    George Magnus
    Fri, April 29, 2022, 2:27 PM·18 min read

  9. Chmeee

    Many years ago ,Catherine Austin Fitts renamed the term ‘privatization’ to ‘piratization’, because it steals the assets that usually have already been paid for by the local governments and residents and gives them to private corporations under terms that are unusually favorable. In some cases, those companies were guaranteed a minimal profit margin, and the governments that made the deal were surprised to find out that they were having to write a check to compensate losses to the ‘buyer’ for an asset that they literally sold for pennies on the dollar.

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