Workers’ unity, struggle puts brakes on firing of School Bus Union 5

Boston, Oct. 23 — In an impressive display of strength and unity in the face of a state attack against a militant union, hundreds of Boston bus drivers, bus monitors and community supporters came out tonight in support of the School Bus Union 5: Andre Francois, Steven Gillis, Stevan Kirschbaum, Richard Lynch and Garry Murchison. Today’s events put the Veolia transnational corporation on the defensive, thwarting its hell-bent plan to break the union by attempting to unlawfully fire these long-time, respected members of Steelworkers Local 8751, the Boston School Bus Drivers Union.

boston3_1031The first hit against Veolia’s plans to terminate Gillis, Kirschbaum and the three other defendants was the legal brief presented to the corporation from the Steelworkers International legal defense team on Oct. 21. It reads in part:  “As is explained herein, none of the named employees has engaged in any of the misconduct alleged against them inasmuch as the facts (as now known to the union) make clear that the events of October 8, 2013, amounted to an unlawful lockout by the Company and not a work stoppage by the employees and that, even if there were a work stoppage prior to the time when the Company locked the employees off the property, such work stoppage would have been a lawful unfair labor practice strike in any event.  Moreover, pursuant to the facts expounded herein, the five named employees did not plan or orchestrate any of the concerted activity that occurred on October 8 and thus have no culpability beyond that.”

boston1_1031The 65-page document includes testimony, photos and other facts explaining that the company’s unfair labor practices were the real cause of the events on Oct. 8.

But the real power that made Veolia nervous today was the workers’ strength. The company knew workers and community members would be gathering outside the meeting at the company’s executive offices.  That was why they announced early on that no one would be terminated today during the first disciplinary hearing against the Five. Another hearing is set for Oct. 28.

Strength of workers’ power

At the 3 p.m. start of the disciplinary meeting, the number of those gathered outside the building was understandably small because most workers were on their buses until 5:30. Union leaders demanded that all Five accused workers be present throughout the hearings.

boston2_1031When the company handed over three copies of the charges against Steve Gillis, union representatives demanded copies for every worker in the room, as past practices dictate. The company was forced to call a recess while that was done. The Five took the opportunity to walk out to the assembled crowd and hold the first of four or five rallies that took place over the next several hours.

Each time they walked out, Kirschbaum, chair of the union’s Grievance Committee, gave a report to a steadily growing crowd. Veolia management personnel drove in and out of the gates as the meeting progressed in order to report to their bosses the increasing size of the rally.

By 7:15 p.m., the gathering, which had grown to more than 350 workers and supporters, was a virtual occupation of Veolia’s corporate headquarters. As Kirschbaum walked out the door, some of the workers picked him up and carried him to a makeshift stage on the back of a truck. The rest of the Five joined him, as well as Boston City Councillor Charles Yancey.

Each member of the Five spoke during the last rally of the day.  Kirschbaum reported that the disciplinary meeting would be continued on Oct. 28. Decisions have been delayed, but Veolia’s attempt to fire the five union leaders is still on the table. Kirschbaum pointed out that the rank-and-file members’ willingness to mobilize in support of the Five has put Veolia on the defensive.

Steve Gillis, USW local vice president, focused his remarks on the villainous role of the Veolia corporation as a worldwide imperialist pirate, more powerful than many governments. Through its four divisions Veolia does business in the trillions of dollars, has operations in 48 countries and employs more than 300,000 workers. It is trying to corner the world’s water supply; is an energy monster that even uses fracking, which is known to destroy the environment; and runs apartheid bus lines and Israeli-settler-only garbage dumps in the occupied West Bank.

But, Gillis pointed out, the real, much stronger power is the power of the workers fighting for their rights in unity as a powerful workers’ assembly.

Francois, Lynch and Murchison all thanked the assembled rank and file for demonstrating by their actions the time-honored motto: “An injury to one is an injury to all.” The three thanked the workers for showing by their solidarity that they would not allow a single union leader to be sacrificed to Veolia’s union busting. Then they told the workers they were living the 8751 motto: “Together we will win. Ansamb nou se yon fos. Todos unitos. De juntos somos forte!”

Councillor Yancey told the drivers and monitors: “You offered to do the afternoon run and pick up the children [on Oct. 8], but the mayor refused and locked the gates. The mayor sided with Veolia. You love the children of Boston. You deserve respect for the work you do. If you win, all of Boston wins. If you lose, workers all over lose.”

This reporter heard workers express a common belief: If the union leaders are terminated, their wages and benefits will go next. They must stop the company’s plans. Hands off the School Bus Union Five!

Piette is a retired letter carrier from Philadelphia. WW photos by Stevan Kirschbaum and Liz Green.