Oct. 15 — Before the sun could rise over Boston on Tuesday, Oct. 8, the rank-and-file members of United Steelworkers Local 8751 were taking a stand against what they called the unfair and illegal practices of Veolia Transportation, Inc.
These school bus drivers reported for work at all four bus yards at their appropriate punch-in times, but refused to drive their buses until Veolia agreed to a meeting with the union to discuss issues regarding the company’s failure to adhere to terms and conditions of the signed collective bargaining agreement. The drivers stated they were engaging in protected activity, not a strike. Minutes turned into hours with no response from the company.
By 11:15 a.m., the company’s response was delivered. The drivers were ordered off the property at all four yards, and the gates were closed and padlocked. An illegal lockout had begun, an action expressly prohibited by the contract.
Background on unfair, illegal company practices
Veolia assumed management of the Boston Public Schools’ transportation vendor contract on July 1. On June 18, in the midst of a transitional period prior to taking over management, Veolia signed an agreement that it would honor the union’s current contract and would operate under all terms and conditions.
Drivers say the company has consistently failed to honor the terms and conditions of that contract and in fact Veolia has engaged in a campaign to violate some of its most critical aspects. They say that the contract represents 35 years of collective-bargaining progress in wages, benefits, working conditions and drivers’ rights while on the job.
The workers have filed in excess of 50 individual and class action grievances against Veolia in violation of the contract. They involve massive and chronic weekly payroll shortages, including not allowing workers to generate their own payroll documentation — a decades-long practice of time-stamping Daily Bus Reports; unsafe and impossible bus route problems, resulting in late student pick-ups, drop-offs and overcrowding of buses; unilateral changes to and failure to provide correct health, dental, sickness and accident, and long-term disability insurance benefits; failure to provide efficient training for license renewal; failure to abide by and adhere to the grievance and arbitration process; use of GPS in violation of provisions of the contract and many more issues.
In addition to the individual and class action grievances, the United Steelworkers filed an Unfair Labor Practice containing 16 charges against Veolia with the National Labor Relations Board on Sept. 13. However, on Oct. 7, the local union was informed by its international attorney that due to the federal government shutdown, all related investigations, gathering of witness testimony, and any action on the union’s demands were indefinitely suspended.
Many of the drivers and the rank-and-file leaders have told the media that this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. USW Local 8751 Vice President Steve Gillis stated during a rally on Oct. 10, “Our drivers were denied their rights under the law to have the government act on their complaints and were forced to take matters into their own hands [on Oct. 8]. We demand that Veolia immediately stop their unfair labor practices and honor the contract they signed.”
When City Councilor Charles Yancey, a respected African-American community leader and 13-term councilor, learned of the dispute between the drivers and Veolia, he personally went to Veolia’s corporate office. At 11 a.m., Yancey, accompanied by Gillis and a delegation of drivers, attempted to request a meeting with Veolia to discuss the drivers’ protest and issues. A group of Veolia managers refused to speak with Yancey and called the police to throw the group off the property. Boston police and company managers closed and locked the gate behind them.
That afternoon Veolia made a motion in the U.S. District Court of Massachusetts requesting an injunction ordering the drivers back to work. Judge George A. O’Toole Jr. denied their request, based on the fact that there was no credible evidence that the workers were “on strike” or planned a strike the following day.
Negative media and role of city officials
For four days, from Oct. 8 to 11, the Boston school bus drivers’ actions were headlined in the media — covered even before the Boston Red Sox and their postseason road to victory. Despite being at the four bus yards almost around the clock and making dogged attempts to interview bus drivers, most of the media coverage was negative and anti-union, with little regard for actual facts.
Besides not allowing neutral or pro-union commentary, the media focused on negative and slanderous comments by city officials. This is noteworthy because the bus drivers are employed by Veolia, a private company, and not by the city of Boston, making them private rather than public employees.
City officials, Mayor Thomas Menino in particular, are well aware of the union’s history and reputation of assertive advocacy for workers’ rights. They viewed this dispute as a convenient opportunity to launch an unyielding, anti-union campaign. Press statements by officials delivered false reports about the drivers’ issues. They also labeled union leaders “rogues” and “renegades,” saying they selfishly risked the safety of Boston school children by refusing to drive. Mayor Menino went so far as to say that the drivers were “selfish, angry people who can’t follow rules.” They claimed that the union instigated an illegal strike while saying nothing about the company’s lockout.
While acknowledging the federal court’s ruling against an injunction, Menino called for the termination of all employees involved in “the strike.” The Boston Public Schools issued daily robo calls to parents fraudulently warning of impending problems caused by the “renegade element” of school bus drivers who were instigating “the strike,” even after the lockout ended the next morning.
Veolia’s bad faith negotiations: ‘An injury to one is an injury to all!’
Union leaders said that on Oct. 9, after the company ended its illegal lockout and finally agreed to meet with the union, the drivers returned to their runs in a show of good faith. Negotiations between Local 8751 and Veolia lasted approximately 10 hours that day.
Nevertheless, the parties were unable to come to an agreement on any of the 15 issues the union wanted to discuss. Instead, company management responded by delivering letters of suspension, with the threat of termination, to Local 8751 Vice President Steve Gillis and Grievance Committee Chairperson Steve Kirschbaum, and by threatening disciplinary action against an additional five union members. As of Oct. 15, three more drivers are being disciplined.
Despite a large, heavy-handed police presence of dozens of cops and under the watchful eye of the media, hundreds of workers rallied in support of the two suspended leaders at the Readville bus yard at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 10. They came from all four city bus yards. The workers roared their support for several minutes before Kirschbaum, a founder of the union, and Gillis were able to give their speeches about what happened at the negotiations. Both men have decades of leadership in the union.
For this and other videos giving the workers’ point of view, see the Team Solidarity website at tinyurl.com/d5tntcg.
As drivers from all four bus yards took the microphone, they vowed to stand as one with their leaders and to continue their just struggle until Veolia and the city of Boston respect their contract and their rights.