The fight to reinstate the wrongly fired leaders of United Steelworkers Local 8751, the Boston School Bus Drivers Union, got a boost on Jan. 8 when Veolia Transportation lost the contract to run Massachusetts’ commuter rail system.
The loss by Veolia, the vicious French-based, global union-busting company that runs Boston’s school bus system, of the $4 billion contract is another blow against the company’s ability to do business in the area. Its vendor contract to run Boston’s school bus system is threatened by a series of hearings called by City Councilor Charles Yancey.
Yancey called the hearings because Veolia’s multiple violations of the school bus drivers’ contract put the company in breach of its vendor contract with the city. Furthermore, the no-show at the first November hearing by Veolia executives, school department officials and former Mayor Thomas Menino was not lost on or appreciated by the city council members of color who were there.
Yancey has therefore used what is called a 17F hearing order to require Veolia executives and school department officials to appear at the next hearing, scheduled for late January.
Boston could be the next place — after St. Louis, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Pensacola, Fla., Paris, among many other cities — where Veolia’s nasty profits-before-people policies have prompted a people’s movement that drives it out of the city.
The primary objective, of course, is to win the union leaders’ jobs back. In November, Veolia fired four drivers — Andre Francois, Steve Gillis, Steve Kirschbaum and Garry Murchison — who comprise the union’s elected organizational backbone. That’s why the Massachusetts AFL-CIO has joined USWA Local 8751 in initiating Solidarity Day 2 on Feb. 1 at Boston’s Fields Corner. That’s a follow-up to the successful Nov. 9 demonstration on Solidarity Day 1.
On that day hundreds of school bus drivers, out of a total of 860, after rallying throughout Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, marched to Veolia’s corporate offices. The majority Haitian and Cape Verdean members marched, danced and chanted, accompanied by joyous drumming, through the streets in a powerful showing, which included community supporters, city council members, radio personalities and union supporters. A busload of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1181 members, the New York school bus drivers union, drove all the way to Boston to show solidarity.
Covered extensively by local media, the demonstration followed a month of yard meetings and rallies, which combined to beat back false propaganda that the firings were because of a “wildcat strike.” Forced by the struggle, the big-business media coverage of the rally began accurately reporting that the firings followed Veolia’s lockout of the workers.
This time, Solidarity Day 2’s embrace by the state labor federation will put Veolia on notice that the union movement is united and is not backing down. Many of the same prominent allies from Solidarity Day 1 will take part in SD2, including Charles Clemons from Touch 106.7, Boston’s African-American radio station.
USWA 8751 has deep support, as shown by an online fundraising campaign for the fired drivers’ families, which raised $14,000 from about 150 donors in a month’s time.
Militant union fighting to win against capitalist austerity
Veolia’s loss of the state light rail contract was a boost to Local 8751’s struggle because it represented the increased collaboration between the Palestinian solidarity movement and organized labor. Veolia has been singled out by U.N. human rights officers as central to the construction of illegal apartheid settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinian solidarity movement used the Nov. 8 public hearing to expose this and call attention to the school bus drivers’ fight.
Boston is fast becoming ground zero for the growing international movement against Veolia. Of course, the struggle against Veolia is more than a fight against the corporate crimes of one capitalist company. At its core, it is one of many frontline battles against bank-driven austerity in the U.S. and worldwide.
In early 2012, a fighting coalition of Boston activists successfully fought the closing of Grove Hall Post Office, located in the African-American community of Roxbury.
Local 8751 played a central role in that struggle, with its leaders driving a flatbed truck-turned-stage that community leaders, radio personalities, union leaders, AFL-CIO officials and local politicians used during campaign rallies.
The local helped organize a school bus drivers’ union at Eastern Bus Company this past fall; sent a busload of drivers last winter to support striking school bus drivers in New York City; and has been central in the ongoing fight against resegregation of Boston’s public schools.
The Boston School Bus Drivers Union exemplifies the best tradition of Karl Marx’s statement that unions must, “apart from their original purposes … learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation.”
In the era of cutbacks and layoffs, such a union is a threat, and it has been identified for destruction by Boston’s 1%. But the fightback ability that made the local such a target has also sparked a dynamic campaign that may make Boston the next city that can score a win — not just against Veolia, but against the bank-mandated capitalist austerity that is causing everything from massive cutbacks in food stamps to the looting of pensions in cities like Detroit.