Roanoke school bus drivers and aides rejected a proposal to unionize Wednesday.

The vote at Durham School Services was 43 in favor of the Amalgamated Transit Union to 162 against, said Sharon Dickens with the union.

Durham School Services, a contractor for Roanoke City Public Schools, transports about 8,000 children on school days, with additional runs for sports and extracurricular events.

Company spokesman Ed Flavin confirmed the vote. He said the company had been open to working with employees whether they decided to affiliate with the union or not.

But there was pushback to his contention from the head of the organizing committee, who claimed the company engaged in scare-tactics designed to defeat the union drive.

Employee Lori Dempsey chalked up the loss to “intimidation” by company officials who she said disseminated negative messages toward the union. Flavin said he could not comment on her claim.

Durham is a nationwide transportation company with union and non-union workplaces.

The Roanoke Valley is home to several union workplaces, all established before a 20-year drought for unionization efforts in the area. Mike Mays, president of the Western Virginia Area Labor Federation, said the last workplace in the Roanoke area that he can recall linking up with a union was Virginia Transformer in Vinton in 1999. The federation counts 34 affiliates today.

ATU says it can be found in 44 states and Canada. Its local 1493 represents drivers and mechanics at Valley Metro, the Roanoke-based bus system. Durham started the 2019-20 school year with late buses, upsetting parents and school officials. Employees reached out to the union at that time, Cliff Headrick, also an ATU official, said previously.

The campaign at Durham School Services took on steam, with 116 employees signing cards stating a desire for ATU representation, according to Dickens. Higher wages, more expansive benefits and more hours were among the goals some employees had.

Based on the show of support, the National Labor Relations Board officials in December scheduled Tuesday’s vote. But by the time votes were cast, support had shrunk. The union is required to wait at least a year before trying again to unionize the workplace, which is located on Barns Avenue near Roanoke-Blacksburg Regional Airport.

Dickens and other union supporters outside the premises had an uneasy feeling during voting hours Tuesday because some employees flashed upward-pointing thumbs, while others flashed middle fingers, she said.

Unions represented about 213,000 Virginia adults in 2018, about 5.5 percent of the state’s total workers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said. The nationwide figure was 10.5 percent in 2018, down by a fraction of a percentage point from 2017, the agency said.

The Virginia AFL-CIO, a federation of unions, counts 325 affiliates, a spokeswoman said.

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Jeff Sturgeon covers business, banking, transportation and federal court. Phone: (540) 981-3251. Email: jeff.sturgeon@roanoke.com. Mail: 201 W. Campbell Ave., Roanoke, VA 24011.

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