Boston school bus drivers vs. Veolia
In this era of union-busting and concessions, school bus drivers are bucking the trend as they resist a wrecking operation conducted by Veolia/Transdev and Boston’s political establishment.
United Steelworkers Local 8751 represents about 800 school bus drivers, the majority Black, Latino, Asian, and immigrant, including from Haiti and Cape Verde. Founded in 1977 during the desegregation of Boston’s schools, the union has a history of social justice unionism, speaking out against racism, offering aid to striking workers, and international solidarity with struggles from South Africa to Palestine. “We are a fighting union,” said member Georgia Scott, describing her local.
But in 2013, the drivers found themselves calling for aid in defending their union against Veolia, after public officials awarded the French-based conglomerate the contract for Boston’s school bus service. Veolia is well-known for its record of helping governments impose “austerity,” — laying off workers and slashing services. It is the top privatizer of water globally, and specializes in privatizing other services and resources, including transportation.
Boston’s switch of contractors came in June 2013, after members had won better pay and benefits, and against a back drop of budget cuts, targeting the city’s school system, that are hitting communities of color the hardest. Forcing middle school students off yellow school buses and on to public transit is one way the district is saving millions of dollars, at the expense of student safety.
Veolia declares war.
Soon after its take-over, Veolia management demanded all drivers re-apply for their jobs, even though many had driven for the district for decades. Disputes also erupted over unrealistic schedules, wage theft, disability benefits, grievance rights, discipline, and more. As Scott summarized, “Veolia has violated our contract from day one.”
Within four months, Veolia provoked 18 unfair labor practice charges and dozens of grievances. In October 2013, management again demanded that all drivers fill out job applications, after the issue was supposedly settled. Fed-up, drivers demanded a work site meeting with management — a right outlined in their contract. Rather than meet, Veolia bosses called police, locked the gates, and stranded thousands of students. Anti-labor news outlets quickly painted Veolia’s lockout as a “wildcat strike” to turn parents against the union. Four leaders — Steve Gillis, Andre Francois, Garry Murchison, and Steve Kirschbaum — were fired, and the local was slandered as out of control with a “lunatic fringe” at the helm.
Confronted by this vicious assault, the embattled membership initiated a grass-roots campaign to gain community and labor support. This included protests, and meetings to press Veolia to reinstate their fired leaders and honor the contract.
In June 2014, when the agreement expired, Veolia escalated efforts to criminalize union activity, securing trumped-up felony charges against Kirschbaum after a work site meeting and rally.
Veolia targeted Kirschbaum, a well-known socialist active with Workers World Party, founding member of the union, grievance chair, and a respected leader within the local. Clearly the company hoped to whip up anti-radical sentiment and put the union in disarray. Instead, drivers and community supporters organized rallies and courtroom actions in Kirschbaum’s defense, and launched a political battle to expose Veolia’s red-baiting smear tactics.
In March 2015, Kirschbaum was cleared of all charges after a jury deliberated for less than an hour. Afterwards he said, “We are hoping to use the momentum of our ‘Not Guilty’ victory against the Veolia/Boston Police anti-union frame up to build toward victory on all fronts — rehiring the four and a just contract. The rank and file are exuberant and feeling the strength of their unity.”
Members know their fight goes deeper, and that Veolia boosts profits by smashing unions and pushing privatization.
In Detroit, Veolia just won a “consultant” contract to assist the Motor City in cutting its public water and sewerage department. This is the first step on the path to privatization.
Across the U.S., Veolia has pushed union busting of bus drivers in Arizona, Florida, Colorado, and other states. In Seattle, Wash., after winning a contract to provide transit service for people with disabilities, the corporation fired the entire workforce that was represented by Amalgamated Transit Union Local 587. As in Boston, they demanded all drivers re-apply for their jobs. Unfortunately, unlike in Boston, the union didn’t stop this anti-labor attack.
In several cities, “Stop Veolia” groups have formed to protest the company’s role in providing Israel with segregated rail service, where Jewish settlers and Arab Palestinians ride separate trains in and out of the West Bank. (red-jos emphasis)
One day stronger.
In confronting this Goliath, the drivers are reaching out to other unions and movements, educating the community about Veolia’s role in pushing austerity at the behest of ruling elites, and aiding racist segregation, whether it is in Israel or Boston.
To that end, they are involved in the Black Lives Matter movement and coalitions to defend public education, to name a few endeavors. They are also organizing pressure on Mayor Tom Walsh to direct Veolia to rehire the local’s fired leaders.
At a meeting in December 2014, members voted unanimously to make amnesty for its fired leaders a condition of contract ratification.
You can help. Call Mayor Walsh at 617-635-4500 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to support the drivers’ demands. For updates, information on how to show solidarity, and sample resolutions, go to
Contact Averill, a unionized Seattle bus driver, at email@example.com