A study in solidarity: The Boston school bus drivers union

For more than two years, the Boston School Bus Drivers, Steelworkers Local 8751, has been in a fierce battle against union-busting, environment-polluting, pri­vatizing corporate giant Veolia/Transdev.

The city of Boston hired Veolia in 2013 to manage school transportation. Transdev is the company created when the 150-year-old French company spun off its transit division.

Workers are In struggle to make Veolia rehire their elected leaders — from left: Grievance Chair Garry Murchison, Vice President Steve Kirschbaum, President Andre François and Financial Secretary Steve Gillis.

Workers are In struggle to make Veolia rehire their elected leaders — from left: Grievance Chair Garry Murchison, Vice President Steve Kirschbaum, President Andre François and Financial Secretary
Steve Gillis.

The drivers are fed up with “Veolia/Transdevil” and the bosses’ unwillingness to negotiate a decent contract. They are fuming mad that four elected union leaders were falsely accused of leading a wildcat strike in October 2013, an event that never happened. Transdev refused to reinstate the four illegally fired union stalwarts.

Though fired, President ­Andre François, Vice President Steve Kirsch­baum, Financial Secretary Steve Gillis and Grievance Chair Garry Murchison are working hard through Team Solidarity at organizing the rank and file to resist Transdev’s egregious concession demands.

When they aren’t in grueling, seemingly endless grievance sessions, this social justice union is out in the streets, fighting shoulder to shoulder with Boston communities. In fact, “civil rights unionism,” a phrase used to describe the anti-racist, left-led CIO unions of a previous era, is what defines the history of Local 8751.

Local 8751 fights for justice

In the 1974 desegregation struggle in Boston, when racist and fascist groups under the codeword of “fighting forced busing” instigated lynch mob attacks on children riding on school buses, the drivers got the children safely to school. Local 8751 has been involved in every struggle for justice in Boston: for affordable housing, decent-paying jobs, equal access to city services, in support of the disability rights community and special needs students, in defense of embattled community leaders, and against racism and sexism.

The union local was a key part of the Coalition to Save Grove Hall Post Office, supporting all four postal worker unions in a successful fight that saved the post office in the heart of Boston’s African-American community.

Local 8751 has stood shoulder to shoulder with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community long before it was a popular position. President François spoke recently at a Black Lives Matter Trans Liberation Day rally and, along with members of the union’s executive board, pledged support for trans rights.

The school bus drivers have extended their solidarity to workers all over the world, most recently to Colombian unionists facing paramilitary terror. Even in the midst of its own struggle, Local 8751 participated in the United National Antiwar Coalition’s “Stop the Wars at Home and Abroad” conference in May, which drew more than 400 delegates from the U.S. and Canada.

Precisely because of the union’s political legacy — and the multiplicity of Veolia/Transdev’s venomous attacks on the workers and oppressed worldwide — the efforts to rehire the fired union leaders have been linked to the Black Lives Matter movement; the Palestinians’ Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign; the water rights movement; striking and locked-out steelworkers; Mumia Abu-Jamal’s struggle; LGBTQ rights; and the global anti-austerity fight.

For all they do, the four unionists have won the support of diverse forces, such as the Bolivarian Circles, the Palestinian community, Fanmi Lavalas, Pride at Work and Black community leaders such as Councillor Charles Yancey, former Councillor Chuck Turner, veteran leader Mel King and radio/TV host Charles Clemons. Recently, a new and historic relationship between Boston’s Black leadership and the city’s predominantly white labor leadership has emerged to support Local 8751, which is 98 percent people of color.

All of these forces are prepared to support a bus drivers’ strike, if necessary. Solidarity can beat Transdev.

Black Lives Matter to the class struggle

The attack by Veolia/Transdev has united the multinational membership of Haitian, African-American, Cape Verdean, Latino/a, Native and anti-racist white bus drivers. The majority Haitian drivers will tell their own history — how enslaved Haitians of African descent liberated themselves and their own country by driving out the French colonialists. They have confidence they can vanquish this racist, union-busting French company.

The outcome of this struggle will have far-reaching repercussions. Now, more than ever before, there is a convergence of the class struggle and the struggle against racism. National oppression is the biggest tool used to divide our class — but at the same time it is capitalism’s Achilles heel. This is where the horrors of capitalism are most sharply laid bare, from Gaza to U.S. cities, with the epidemic of genocidal police killings.

Capitalism is in an intractable crisis. The ruling class is threatened by this revolutionary model of social justice and civil rights unionism: the Boston School Bus Drivers Union.

However, from a working-class standpoint, this example needs to be replicated. Even now a clear position of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement is lacking in the U.S. labor movement. For example, United Auto Workers International President Dennis Williams has yet to utter the words “Black Lives Matter.” This is the union that brags of having been one of only two unions to endorse the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech.

In the 1940s, there were “hate strikes” by racist white autoworkers — often egged on by management — who wanted to keep Black workers segregated on the worst jobs. The UAW refused to defend the racists when they faced discipline. Civil rights unionism must be revived.

When unions take the moral high ground and stand up to racism and bigotry, as Local 8751 has done for four decades, that is how they build strong working-class solidarity.

As early as 1848, Karl Marx said that the most important accomplishment of the trade unions was not a raise in pay or a reduction of hours, but the “ever-expanding union of the workers.” The building of labor-community solidarity, which expands the unity of workers and oppressed, will be the enduring achievement of the struggle to rehire the fired leaders.

Martha Grevatt is a 28-year UAW Chrysler worker.

Minnie Bruce Pratt contributed to this article.