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Union takes charge after cement explosion

Published Oct 15, 2006 11:34 PM

On Sept. 28 an industrial silo exploded near the Charlestown yard where Boston school buses are kept. It spewed out a reported 3,000 pounds of toxic slag dust, which settled on the school bus drivers and their vehicles.

Hazmat workers clean area near parked school buses.
WW photo: Steve Gillis

The slag, a component of cement, exposed the drivers to crystalline silica and other harmful metals and chemicals, according to the company’s own report. Some 147 drivers were brought to area hospitals by emergency crews. The harm caused by the disaster is still being assessed.

Shaking off the potentially harmful effects to themselves, and without waiting for the bus company, First Student, to deal with the situation, the school bus drivers and their union sprang into action. The largely Haitian, Cape Verdean, [email protected] and African American work force and their union, United Steel Workers Local 8751, have long been known as a first line of defense for school desegregation and for the over 35,000 students who ride to school in Boston.

While the company seemed paralyzed, the drivers showed they could also deal with other areas of the people’s transportation business.

Workers set up command center

With military-like discipline, the drivers’ union evacuated the bus yard and set up a command center in the cafeteria of nearby Charleston High School. There, while still breathing in harmful slag particles, they organized their own food and water needs and began to dispatch drivers to schools and other bus yards so the children could get home safely.

Meanwhile, union officers demanded that the bus company clean the drivers’ cars first. This process, organized by the union in a spirit of solidarity, took until 1:30 a.m. The drivers were required to be at work the next morning at 5:30 a.m. The School Department had refused union advice to cancel school so children would not be left stranded.

Union Vice President Steve Gillis arrived at the bus yard 10 minutes after the explosion. “For the safety of the drivers, monitors, mechanics and school children,” he told Workers World, “the union stopped the buses from going out with the unknown dust on them, which would otherwise have happened. The drivers rejected buses going out with dust still on them, and the union had dispatchers recall contaminated buses the company had already sent out.”

The union’s chief steward made a list of all exposed workers. Many bus monitors, who are mostly Haitian women, were among those brought to the hospital. The company made no list of its own and, according to union officers, never gave an order for the workers to evacuate the bus yard.

Greedy companies and do-nothing authorities

While the cement disaster was unprecedented, the unfeeling response of city authorities was all too predictable. Without benefit of scientific sampling of the contaminated area, the Boston Public Health Commission issued a statement claiming that the dust was mostly confined to the Lafarge Cement Co. yard. Charged with protecting the health of its residents, the city agency made no mention of the workers who might have been exposed.

A hazardous materials clean-up company crew boss had told union officials it was nothing but “nuisance dust that we’ll have out of here in a few hours.” In fact, it took six days of round-the-clock work by mostly [email protected] hazmat workers, organized by the Laborers’ Union, to clean the area.

An Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspector took samples of the slag, promising results in “up to six weeks,” while rejecting an offer from the United Steel Workers’ Health and Safety Department to share a portion of the sample so it could conduct its own sampling and get results in 24 hours.

The Boston cement dust disaster is a perfect example of corporate greed in league with do-nothing government regulatory agencies. Lafarge North America, which was responsible for the accident, is a multi-billion-dollar international corporation that extracts profits from workers in literally dozens of countries across the globe.

First Student acquired the contract to run Boston school buses three years ago when it underbid the competition by $10 million. It then moved the Charlestown drivers from a building in Sullivan Square to a trailer on the industrial waterfront.

OSHA was created in 1970 as a concession to organized workers’ demands for health and safety protection. Since that time it has become a transparent servant of corporate capitalist interests, allowing violators lenient terms to “abate,” or remedy, the hazardous work places they control.

Only complete control of working conditions by the workers, through a system based on health and safety rather than profits, can possibly avert future disasters like this one. On Sept. 28, the Boston school bus drivers’ union, made up of 800 mostly immigrant workers, demonstrated that—without bosses, politicians or the need to make profits—the workers and schoolchildren could organize themselves to deal with a real health emergency.