On Dec. 2, “Friends of the School Bus 5” launched a crowd-sourcing fundraising effort to raise money for the families of the four fired Boston school bus drivers’ union leaders.
Already, District 35 of the Painters and Allied Trades in Boston has led the way with a $1,000 contribution, presented to Steelworkers Union Local 8751 by Business Manager/Secretary Treasurer Jeff Sullivan.
The fight against the union-busting schemes of Veolia Transportation and its Boston backers is a fight of the majority Haitian and Cape Verdean workforce against austerity, technology-driven pay cuts, inferior benefits and an attempt to decapitate Local 8751’s leadership.
It’s also another front in the growing campaign against the Veolia Corporation, whose nasty profits-before-people behavior — everything from dumping millions of gallons of waste into rivers around the world to supporting apartheid settlements in the West Bank — has made it the target of international anticorporate campaigns.
Veolia’s crimes started months ago
Many of the details of Veolia’s crimes came out in a Boston City Council hearing on Nov. 21. The hearing was held to determine if the company has violated its contract with the city.
The global privatizing firm, which formally took over Boston’s school bus system on July 1, had already made its intentions clear during April negotiations.
That’s when Veolia tried to get the union to agree that the workers would fill out new-hire applications. That kind of tactic is used to eliminate seniority and benefits; it also allows the company to pick and choose who it wants to drive the buses. However, some of the bus drivers had been working there for decades, going all the way back to the union’s founding in the 1970s.
The company also tried to get the drivers to sign a “background check” waiver that would have made the National Security Agency jealous. It gave Veolia the right to spy on the workers and their families through social media and other sources.
As the union’s founder and fired driver Grievance Chair Steve Kirschbaum stated at the hearing, this was an attempt to “bring Homeland Security into labor management relations.”
The union was successful in rejecting these attempts; drivers only had to fill out a simple one-page form for Veolia. Then the company tried to change the terms and conditions of the union contract, attempting to throw out sections of the contract dealing with disability insurance and rights on the job.
Veolia was attempting to rewrite the contract its executives had pledged to honor when they signed the vendor contract with the city of Boston.
One of the biggest examples of this was its insistence on using Global Positioning System tracking devices to map out bus routes and determine drivers’ pay. In violation of the contract, Veolia replaced driver- and timeclock-generated payroll reports with GPS-generated data. This caused massive speedups, late school arrivals and shortages in the drivers’ pay in the first several months of the school year.
At the same time, Veolia switched the drivers’ insurance coverage to cheaper, inferior plans that led to the denial of workers’ medical benefits and disability claims. Kirschbaum brought this up in the hearing, stating, “Our children weren’t getting the health insurance our members had fought for. Our spouses who were battling cancer were no longer transported to get radiation therapy, our sisters could no longer get mammograms when they were needed, our families could no longer afford prescriptions and medical equipment because we were told Veolia bought an inferior insurance policy.”
How the attack on the union came down
As the workers’ anger mounted, Veolia placed the final straw on their backs on Oct. 7, one day before it locked out the drivers at the Freeport bus yard. That morning the company called drivers on their radios and told them to come back and fill out new-hire applications, the ones that the union had rejected in negotiations. When the drivers came in, they were given an 8-page document to fill out — including the Sterling Infosystems NSA-style waiver!
Testifying at the Nov. 21 hearing, Vice President Steve Gillis called this “one of the most devious things that we had ever experienced with any corporation.”
During the afternoon of Oct. 7, Veolia handed out sheets for an October bid for routes that slashed pay by as much as several hours a day.
The next morning when the school bus drivers reported to work, they demanded a meeting with their supervisors. They had every reason to expect one because Carl Allen, the city’s Director of Transportation; Kimberly Rice, the CEO of Boston Public Schools; and officers of Veolia’s top staff were present, though they were not usually in the bus yards at 4:30 a.m.
But the reason the Veolia and Boston officials were there was not to talk. They were there to coordinate an attack on the union. Their response to the drivers’ legitimate demand for a meeting was to summon the police and lock them out, under threat of arrest for trespassing.
The subsequent firing of the union leadership triggered the solidarity campaign to get them rehired, which gained momentum with the outpouring of support at the Day of Solidarity rally on Nov. 9 and the Nov. 21 City Council hearing.
The drivers’ overflow turnout at the hearing, which was covered by Boston’s local media, forced Veolia to respond by sending a defensive, dishonest and illegal letter to union members. The city councilor who called the hearing, Charles Yancey, vowed there would be further hearings to investigate Veolia’s contract with the city.
In the meantime, the four fired union leaders are entering their fourth week with no pay and benefits. This is a moment when solidarity truly counts. Go to the Friends of the School Bus 5 link at bit.ly/1invSKE to contribute your solidarity and share the link widely.
Murphy attended the Nov. 21 Boston City Council hearing.