Going to Boston to help build support for the School Bus Drivers, United Steelworkers Local 8751 was a unique and rewarding experience.
Why did I go? Because Local 8751 is at a difficult juncture and needs support. For the past eight months, the union has been resisting a major austerity assault by Veolia, a French based, multinational, union-busting company. The drivers were illegally locked out, and then four of their leaders were fired. Now the fired leaders have exhausted their unemployment benefits, and Veolia and the city of Boston have given 100 summer jobs to nonunion companies. Meanwhile, the bus drivers’ contract with Veolia expires on June 30 and with it, the no strike clause.
The union, which has struck 11 times in the past, must decide what is best for its membership under these very difficult circumstances. Local 8751 has called for a community and labor support rally on June 30 — Solidarity Day III.
So this reporter went to Boston with other volunteers to make phone calls, leaflet, and make signs and banners to build this important demonstration. What was unique and rewarding was interacting with the union membership. On June 10 this reporter met about 30 drivers — women and men — who gathered at Veolia headquarters to stand outside a union grievance meeting and make their strength known to the company officials as they entered. It seems that this is common practice with Local 8751. What other union does that?
The next surprise was the energy of the union organizers. On June 12, this reporter could barely keep up with Local 8751 leaders, members and supporters when they took to the streets to join a march called by Wage Action to demand $15 and a union and justice for fast food workers, medical workers, taxi drivers, food service and hospitality workers, Walmart workers and more.
The next step was the deep solidarity and respect seen at that evening’s organizing meeting, when this reporter joined about 100 others to launch Solidarity Day III. Bus drivers mapped out the next phase of the struggle against Veolia/city union busting, the reinstatement of the four illegally fired leaders and solidarity with the fight for a 2014 contract. Community members and leaders, including 30-year-veteran African-American Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey and TOUCH 106.1 radio founder and General Manager Charles Clemens, passionately expressed their support for the union and described the other front in the city’s attack, the School Department and Mayor Martin Walsh’s massive and racist austerity cuts to education, which threaten to resegregate the city. Teachers, educational advocates, food service workers and volunteers spoke up against cutbacks and layoffs, then left taking stacks of leaflets to build for the June 30 action.
But the week wasn’t over yet. Signs and banners had to be gathered to decorate a float for the June 14th annual Boston Pride march. Stonewall Warriors and the LGBTQ community were preparing a special salute to the Boston school bus drivers union in the June 13 Pride Day parade for its 40 years of solidarity with the LGBTQ community and Boston’s school children. What other union gets this kind of recognition?
There are other things that make Local 8751 unique. It is the largest majority African-American and immigrant union in the state of Massachusetts, with most drivers born in Haiti. Over its 40-year history, the union has won a contract like no other bus drivers contract and is the envy of those who work in the industry in terms of salary and benefits.
Local 8751 has grown and made steady gains for its membership in the reactionary post-Reagan era, when bosses have forced huge givebacks from the union movement as a whole, and the number of workers in unions has steadily shrunk.
The role of communist, union leadership
How could Local 8751 swim against the tide? Because this union is a direct continuation of the militant trade union tradition that built the unions of the 1930s — built by communist cadre who won battle after battle by winning over and developing the rank and file and by working together with the community for the benefit of the whole working class.
Much of this fighting knowledge and tradition was lost to the trade union movement here when the U.S. government forced communists out of the unions during the witch hunt of the 1950s. But Workers World party was among those organizations which kept alive this knowledge and experience of the more militant and more successful form of unionism. Local 8751 has Workers World Party members among its founders, members and leaders, bringing this knowledge to the local.
Steelworkers Local 8751 is the living embodiment in practice of all the history lessons and traditions that the best of the trade union movement historically has learned and gathered to itself in how to fight the bosses and win.
The role that WWP has played in this union has not been lost on Veolia, the mayor’s office or the Boston ruling-class establishment.
In this latest round of attacks, the union has been red-baited. Both the previous mayor and the Boston Globe have called for the firing of union leaders and WWP members Stevan Kirschbaum and Steve Gillis by name, and the Globe even quoted a statement from Kirschbaum from a 1980s WWP conference.
If the company, the mayor and the Boston establishment thought that red baiting union members would isolate them from other union members and weaken the solidarity within Local 8751, they were sadly mistaken.
The Team Solidarity slate recently swept all eight elected positions on the union’s negotiating committee by a landslide, with the fired leaders topping the ballot. Veolia officials will have to sit across the negotiating table from Steve Gillis, Andre Francois, Stevan Kirschbaum and Garry Murchison — the four union officers unjustly fired after Veolia locked out bus drivers in October.
This is why today Steelworkers Local 8751 is not just facing the company, it is also arrayed against the city government and the Boston establishment itself.
Veolia is acting as an agent of the city to bust the union. The drivers have learned that for every dollar Veolia “saves” for the city from bus driver salaries, benefits, routes, layoffs, etc., the city will give Viola 50 cents.
Steelworkers Local 8751 remains a strong, class-conscious union with a dedicated and struggle oriented rank-and-file leadership that listens to and dialogues with its membership. It has built — and maintains — important and mutually beneficial ties in Boston communities
However, the Boston school bus drivers need assistance to help guarantee that their Local 8751 militancy continues in the future. Help get out the word about this union under attack. Gather labor and community endorsers in your area for Solidarity III. Come to Boston early and help build for Solidarity Day III, June 30 at 6 p.m. on the corner of Dorchester Avenue and Hoyt Street in Dorchester.
June 30 donations are much needed. Make checks out to “Friends of the School Bus 5” and mail to P.O. Box 141, Stoughton, MA 02072 or contribute online at www.bostonschoolbus5.org.
The author, a retiree from New York City’s District Council 37, municipal workers, recently traveled to Boston to help School Bus Drivers fight attacks on their union and jobs.