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Bus drivers call off planned strike, resume negotiations
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WARWICK, R.I. (AP) -- School bus drivers in Warwick and Jamestown have called off a planned strike and agreed to return to the negotiating table, after intervention by their national union. The 95 drivers of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 618 have been working without a contract since the start of school last month, after their three-year deal with the busing company First Student Inc. expired June 30.

First Student is the private bus provider for Warwick and Jamestown, and negotiates its own contracts with its drivers, who are not considered city or school employees. This week, union members voted 65-0 to strike in the near future, probably on Tuesday, to protest a lack of progress in the talks. Officials in both communities were caught off-guard, and were sent scrambling to set up emergency plans to get students to school. But after the intervention of the national Amalgamated Transit Union, and talks between the local union and Warwick school officials, the local union agreed to go back to the bargaining table and continue working.

"As long as these negotiations continue, nothing is going to interfere with bus service," said Stephen Farrell, president and business agent for Local 618. Several informational pickets planned for next week have also been called off. Farrell said he had spoken extensively to Warwick Schools Superintendent Robert Shapiro on Thursday night, and started to realize the consequences a bus strike would have on the Warwick schools.

The next negotiating session is scheduled for Friday at the union's headquarters in Providence. Farrell said the stumbling blocks are wages, health care and life insurance. Jim Castelli, the regional vice president for First Student, declined to comment on what he felt was standing in the way of a contract. Cincinnati-based First Student operates more than 15,000 buses nationwide.

Locally, the company also serves Providence, Smithfield, North Providence and Johnston. In Providence, the drivers are affiliated with the Teamsters Union, while drivers in the other three communities are not unionized, Castelli said.

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