Union’s pro-solidarity history wins support in class battle

Oct. 14 — A giant transnational corporation’s grinding attack on a militant union in Boston has led to an explosion of struggle. The workers’ action has already begun to attract support from class-conscious workers and unionists around Boston, the U.S. and the world who are determined to stop union busting. The conflict continues into its second week.

On one side of the struggle in Boston, the French-based Veolia transnational monopoly is repeating its attack on union contracts that has provoked workers from France to Finland into taking action to defend their rights.

On the other side is the United Steelworkers school bus drivers’ Local 8751. The union held mass protest demonstrations earlier this year and filed 16 grievances with the National Labor Relations Board to defend their contract.

Local 8751 is known throughout New England not only for its record of defending workers’ rights, but its solidarity with community and Civil Rights struggles since the 1974 desegregation of schools. It is also known for its splendid record of solidarity with other locals. Local 8751 sent a busload of members to support New York’s school bus drivers and matrons, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181, during their strike last February.

The latest confrontation between Veolia Transportation, Inc. and Local 8751 burst into the open the morning of Oct. 8 when more than 800 bus drivers said, “Enough is enough.” They were responding to what they called union-busting and racist, plantation-style treatment since Veolia took over Boston’s school bus contract last summer. A video report on ABC Channel 5 Boston shows how the bosses answered by locking the workers out of the yard that day.

Union leaders said that in a show of good faith, the drivers returned to their runs on Oct. 9 after the company finally agreed to meet with the union. But instead of negotiating the workers’ grievances, management responded by delivering letters of suspension with the threat of termination to two union leaders and by threatening actions against others.

Not only the company but also Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and his administration have tried to target Local 8751, whose membership now is of mostly Haitian and Cape Verdean origin, and its militant union leaders.

Mayor Menino joined the attacks on the leaders, calling them “a rogue element” and making other personal attacks in the Boston Globe. The ultraright Boston Herald tried to pillory them for their leftist history. (Oct. 10)

The attack on Local 8751’s most active unionists is an attempt to crush the union by dividing the rank and file from the leaders and the union from Boston parents. The union has been taking steps to respond to the attack.

Workers rally to support union leaders

Hundreds of workers rallied around the two leaders at the Readville bus yard at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 10, despite a large, heavy-handed police presence of dozens of cops. The workers roared their support for several minutes before Stevan Kirschbaum, a founder of the union and chairperson of the union’s grievance committee, and Vice President Steve Gillis, a longtime leader, were able to describe what happened at the negotiations and thereafter.

At this videotaped open meeting, Gillis said he and Kirschbaum had received the suspension letters following 10 hours of fruitless negotiations. (For this and other videos giving the workers’ point of view, see the Team Solidarity website at tinyurl.com/d5tntcg.)

That same evening, at a standing-room-only solidarity meeting called on a day’s notice by Team Solidarity (the rank-and-file organization of the bus drivers’ union), the room was packed with a broad cross section of political allies, including leaders of the Coalition for Equal Quality Education, Palestine Solidarity, Boston Bolivarians, Women’s Fightback Network, along with students, Eastern Bus workers, Brockton Teamsters school bus drivers, Southeast Asian political activists, and current operating engineer and former school bus driver Lendy Ware.

Myls Calvey, a militant leader of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2222 representing telephone workers at Verizon, and Paul Kilduff, president of the Metro Boston 100 American Postal Workers Union, extended offers of assistance and concrete solidarity to Local 8751.

The union has issued a series of demands that give a clear idea of the workers’ many legitimate grievances. Besides demanding amnesty for all unionists involved in the Oct. 8 action, most of the demands simply insist that the company honor the current contract.

The drivers are basically fighting to preserve the gains and union rights they have won over decades of militant, unwavering union struggle. The contract that Veolia has with the city says the company must honor the existing contract with the union. Yet it took a major militant march and rally at the company’s offices to get them to sign an agreement in June that they would honor the contract. The company continues to commit numerous violations.

The two sides of the class struggle

Veolia is a huge, multi-billion-dollar, transnational corporation headquartered in France. This monopoly is also attempting to corner the world’s water supply. Veolia provoked a protest of workers in Finland earlier this year. Tommi Lievemaa, a Finnish worker-activist, told Workers World that Veolia unilaterally changed contract terms there, too.

Local 8751 has consistently waged a struggle for economic and social justice — one that includes but hasn’t been limited to the safety of Boston’s school children. The very existence and mission of the union is bound up with the struggle of African-American and other oppressed communities for equal education since the desegregation of Boston’s schools by court-ordered busing in 1974.

Local 8751 was founded and built on rank-and-file militancy, winning union recognition and respect through its willingness to take action. Because of its reputation and the massive involvement of the membership in its actions, there has been no need to suspend bus service since 1991 in order to win decent contracts.

Go to the Facebook page of “Team ­Solidarity – the Voice of United School Bus Union Workers” for updates.