Rank-and-file immigrant workers battle global union buster Veolia

The following press release, slightly edited, was issued Oct. 31 by Team Solidarity in Boston in defense of United Steelworkers local 8751, the Boston School Bus Drivers, whose leaders are being threatened with firing by the Veolia Corporation.

In late October, Veolia Transportation flew top executives from Los Angeles, St. Louis and Texas to its offices in Boston. Their purpose? To oversee the firing of five leaders of the Boston school bus drivers’ union.

So far the global conglomerate’s plans to fire the five Boston drivers have been stymied by the drivers’ fierce resistance. At the first disciplinary hearing on Oct. 23, hundreds of school bus drivers — 95 percent immigrant workers from Haiti and Cape Verde — crowded the entrance to Veolia’s office. Veolia’s management decided not to fire the drivers on that day and scheduled the next hearing for Oct. 28.

Again, hundreds of rank-and-file drivers as well as community supporters and Boston trade unionists showed up to occupy Veolia’s parking lot.

The executives’ plans were pushed back. No workers were fired. The next hearing has been set for Oct. 31 at 3 p.m., at 35 Freeport Way in Dorchester, Mass. Veolia remains hellbent on firing the leadership of the local. The company didn’t fly executives to Boston for nothing.

In a fierce struggle that broke out when Veolia committed an unfair labor practice lockout of 700 school bus drivers, Local 8751 has been waging a heroic fight against the global union buster.

Leading to the lockout were a series of contract violations, constant shortages in paychecks and an attempt to impose further wage cuts through an insidious GPS-based pay scheme.

Everywhere Veolia gets a contract to manage a city service, it sparks struggles and strikes. It is legendary for running city services into the ground while profiting handsomely. In Indianapolis, the city cancelled its 20-year water contract with Veolia halfway through. Just this week, the city of St. Louis decided not to grant Veolia a water consulting contract.

It’s no accident that the recent Bay Area Rapid Transit workers’ strike — in which two workers were killed by a management-operated train — took place against a negotiating team that included Veolia Vice President Thomas P. Hock. The Boston school bus drivers’ struggle is on the front lines of a worldwide fight against the ravages of privatization.

It’s also a fight by a union that exemplarizes the new approach by the AFL-CIO, Service Employees union and the International Longshore Workers to increase collaboration between labor and the community.

A union’s long history of struggle

Local 8751’s very existence and mission are 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.

The local has continued the fight against repeated attempts to resegregate Boston schools. For this purpose, its leaders recently formed an alliance with unions, parents and groups like the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts and the Coalition for Equal Quality Education.

The union has also been active in the struggle for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights; has mobilized against every war since the 1970s; and rallied daily with Occupy Boston and Occupy the Hood during [their] heyday. Their activists led militant marches with Verizon and hotel workers; set up sound trucks for anti-war and labor marches; and participated in teach-ins, community speak-outs and veterans’ demonstrations.

Local 8751 is known for organizing long-distance solidarity trips. The local was a strong presence at last year’s march against Wells Fargo and Bank of America at the March Against Wall Street South in North Carolina, a “right-to-work” state.

This year during the bitter, month-long, school bus drivers’ strike in New York, USWA Local 8751 sent a busload of its members to join the picket lines there and protest outside of billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s house. Veolia bosses are well acquainted with this fact: they included a video from that solidarity trip in their “evidence” being used to “prove” the case for the union leaders’ termination!

The School Bus Union 5 are Steve Kirschbaum, chair of the Grievance Committee; Andre Francois, chief steward and recording secretary; Steve Gillis, vice president; Garry Merchison, three-term former president; and Richard Lynch, shop steward.

Veolia is a huge company with 65,000 employees all over the world. Even though the valiant struggle of the union has pushed it back so far, real solidarity in winning this struggle is critical. Already the union has formed a defense committee utilizing the ties it has built with local churches, teachers’ organizations and other Boston unions. For it to win, it needs the backing of the entire progressive movement.

How to support the Boston School Bus Union 5:

1. Contact: Veolia General Manager Alex Roman III: 617-780-4840, [email protected]; Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino: 617-635-4500, [email protected], dax 617-635-2851; and John McDonough, interim superintendent of the Boston Public Schools: 617-635-9050, [email protected], fax 617-635-9059.

Tell them: “Honor the School Bus Drivers contract! Hands off Local 8751 leaders!” Send copies to the Committee to Defend the School Bus Union 5 at [email protected]

2. Hold a solidarity activity, if possible at a Veolia location near you, or come to Boston and rally outside Veolia’s corporate offices during the disciplinary hearings against the 5!

3. Send solidarity letters and resolutions to the Committee to Defend the School Bus Union 5 at [email protected]

4. Send your endorsement of the Committee to Defend the School Bus Union 5 to [email protected]

5. Donate to the support fund. An account is being set up; find Team Solidarity on facebook at tinyurl.com/d5tntcg for more info.