Boston school bus drivers step up the fight

Garry Murchison, Steve Kirschbaum, Andre Francois, Steve Gillis

Garry Murchison, Steve Kirschbaum, Andre Francois, Steve Gillis

The struggle between the Boston School Bus Drivers Union, Steelworkers Local 8751, on the one hand, and the Boston city administration and the international union-busting corporation Veolia — now renamed Transdev — on the other, is being taken to new heights.

The union’s new leadership, elected April 30, is bringing the demands of rank-and-file workers to the forefront. These demands center around 700 unresolved grievances, unfair labor practice charges against Veolia, winning a just contract and the company’s GPS/telematics surveillance of drivers that breaks the existing contract. A key workers’ demand is the reinstatement of four fired leaders who have been off the job for 22 months.

The four fired leaders — President Andre Francois, Vice President Steve Kirschbaum, Financial Secretary Steve Gillis and Grievance Chair Garry Murchison — were elected to these key positions by a wide margin in April.

Long hours of negotiations have transpired between the new leadership and Veolia, the city, and the Boston Public Schools. The union has brought its fighting spirit to the negotiating table, using struggle tactics to further its goals. Developments are coming by the minute, so the union hasn’t had a moment to breathe between punches.

Bus yard rallies and picket lines, a regular occurrence, have brought the fight straight to Veolia’s headquarters. An occupation of the Freeport bus yard by the entire executive board on June 22 lasted nearly nine hours — the last two while police were threatening to evict them.

“We were holding company officials in near round-the-clock meetings regarding mass noncompliance with the contract, including use of GPS and other telematic technology to route buses and pay drivers less, and Mayor Walsh’s administration was scabbing out some of our work to non-union outfits,” Gillis explained. “These meetings came in the wake of a Boston Globe investigative report about BPS/Veolia’s record of late bus routes based on GPS routing, leading up to a scheduled contract negotiations session.”

Freeport is the same bus yard where Stevan Kirschbaum was framed up on four felony charges during a demonstration last year. Kirschbaum was declared innocent in court this year, winning his case with the help of fellow workers and solidarity from the community.

On June 25, the union held more spirited rallies in all four bus yards.

Then on June 27 Veolia issued what the union called “a declaration of war.” The union received an illegal, fraudulent “last best offer” from the company, stating that if the membership did not accept this ultimatum by July 10 the drivers would not receive retroactive pay that had previously been agreed to. These pay increases date back to July 1, 2014, when the old contract expired.

This so-called offer, which violates several labor laws, includes the following concessions to management: introduction of spy cameras on the buses, elimination of one of two health care plans, increased discipline and erosion of language guaranteeing flat rate pay protection. Veolia, Boston Public Schools and Mayor Walsh also stubbornly refuse to reinstate the four illegally fired leaders.

So the company ultimatum was a shamelessly transparent attempt to entice and threaten members to accept a bad contract and turn their backs on their leaders.

City concedes two vital points, but not Veolia

Local 8751 has no truck with any of this. On June 29, another marathon session/occupation took place at City Hall with the mayor’s lawyer, Paul Curran, and Chief Operating Officer of BPS Kim Rice. That ended when the city made the following two concessions: they told the union the threat to take away retroactive pay was a mistake, and the Union Security Agreement protecting jobs, seniority and 40 years of collective bargaining gains would continue.

Expressing their rock-solid solidarity, community leaders who joined these negotiations included veteran City Councilor Charles Yancey; activist Chuck Turner; Sandra MacIntosh, of Coalition for Equal Quality Education; Charles Clemons, of TOUCH 106.1 radio; Haitian community leader Jean Claude Sanon; and representatives of the International Action Center, Women’s Fightback Network and Massachusetts United Against Police Violence.

Less than an hour later, however, Veolia reinstituted the threat, overriding what BPS and City Hall conceded to. Veolia’s double-cross was not only a slap in the face to the union, but to its community supporters. Veolia is refusing to bargain in good faith, which constitutes an unfair labor practice.

But it proves the Marxist truth: Capitalists tell the government what to do, not the other way around.

In an attempt to further intimidate the workers into accepting its rotten “offer,” Veolia mailed a five-page letter, in Haitian and Cape Verdean Creole, Spanish and English, to workers’ homes.

“Veolia is running amok with a series of warlike communications and actions,” said Kirschbaum. These include threatening hundreds of workers, laid off for the summer, with discharge if they do not report for a “mandatory recall” to bid on summer work.

The new player in negotiations is Veolia’s vice president for labor relations, Thomas P. Hock, notorious for his role in the Bay Area Regional Transit strike of 2013 during which two workers died. Hock, whose Cincinnati-based law firm has engaged in professional union busting in mass transit for 40-plus years, is president and founder of Professional Transit Management. PTM’s Northeast regional manager is also Veolia’s General Manager Alex Roman. In addition to breaking unions, PTM is the subject of numerous complaints of racist discrimination and sexual harassment.

Solidarity in action

Despite having to fight for its own survival, Local 8751 continues to uphold its rich legacy of politically active unionism. Local 8751 poured out for the Haitian flag day parade on May 17, proclaiming support for Fanmi Lavalas candidate for the Haitian presidency, Dr. Marcis Narcisse. On June 13, they marched in Pride, showing the unwavering support for the lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer community from one of the first unions in the United States to win contractual anti-discrimination rights for lesbian, gay and bi workers. Trans rights will be included in the new contract.

One day after Local 8751 picketed Veolia headquarters on June 18, they were in the streets again for Juneteenth to “Say no to racism, police murder and violence, racist terror from Boston to Charleston to Baltimore to Ohio!”

This is the activism the company-friendly former union officials tried to use against the Francois-Kirschbaum slate in the election. “It backfired,” said Kirschbaum. “Team Solidarity, with its militant, class-conscious program and tactics, swept all 18 leadership positions by a landslide. Our record of struggle provided the best antidote for the poison of red baiting!”

The situation is changing day by day, but the rank and file are ready to strike and have spoken as one: “No  amnesty, no contract, justice — no work!”

Veolia has made a calculated effort to bleed the four fired leaders dry. The workers and leadership haven’t blinked in the face of this onslaught. Their reserves are running low, however. These leaders need solidarity and financial support now more than ever. Anything supporters can contribute will be repaid in the struggle tenfold. To send money online, go to Or send checks to Friends of the School Bus 5, P.O. Box 141, Stoughton, MA 02072.