Boston is hundreds of miles from Detroit, but the fight of Steelworkers Local 8751 to beat the union-buster Veolia Corp. matters to workers and youth here.
The school bus drivers’ union was created in 1978, but their story really begins in 1974 with the struggle to desegregate Boston schools. When desegregation began, racists organized anti-integration protests drawing thousands. They infiltrated parent-teacher organizations to get the numbers out.
Anti-racists mobilized, weakening the racists. This led up to the 20,000-strong 1974 National March Against Racism. Some of the march organizers went on to form the union. When the racists saw their mass base diminished, they attacked buses full of children while police watched. You can imagine that one would have to be very courageous to be a school bus driver, especially as a person of color.
That legacy lives on today in the struggle-oriented social unionism of the school bus drivers, 98 percent of whom are people of color, with the majority Cape Verdean and Haitian.
The drivers struggle hard, not only for themselves but for the global working class. They have a long history in the anti-war movement, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation and the right of self-determination for the Palestinian people. Their union was one of the first to have a rights clause for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people, and showed its solidarity with a float in last year’s Pride march. Of course the union has united with the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The school bus drivers have fought against every form of division imposed on the working class. The union affords workers one of the highest standards of living among bus drivers in the U.S.
The union’s will to struggle has put it in a life-or-death situation with one of the Earth’s largest transnational corporations, Veolia.
Veolia is a beast with a thousand heads, created by an imperial decree of Napoleon III in 1853 to supply water to the French public. Its very inception was a historic act of privatization! Today, Veolia makes more profits off of water than any other corporation. Veolia handles waste management, energy and transportation — traditionally public-sector industries. Veolia is a hired gun used to privatize and bust unions. In the apartheid state of Israel, Veolia runs segregated buses.
Veolia’s tentacles even stretch deep into the propaganda consumed by billions worldwide. It owns several of the biggest television channels and film studios around the globe. Universal Music Group is an appendage of Veolia that rakes in over 30 percent of the entire music industry profits globally. Until recently, Veolia owned Activision Blizzard, one of the largest video game companies in the world, known for its very popular, ultra violent and racist war video games.
Stop Veolia’s attacks!
This is what the school bus drivers are up against. Since Veolia took over in 2013, the workers have been under ceaseless attack. Veolia agreed in writing to honor the union contract in place, but has flagrantly violated it at every turn. On Oct. 8, 2013, rank-and-file workers along with their leadership legally demanded meetings at bus yards about pressing issues. Veolia illegally locked them out. The company called this a wildcat strike, a lie parroted by the media.
Veolia suspended and in November fired four union leaders — Vice President Steve Gillis, Recording Secretary Andre Francois, Grievance Chair and union founder Steve Kirschbaum, and three-time former local president and steward, Garry Murchison. Since then, more union members have been unjustly fired.
At a demonstration on June 30 dubbed “Solidarity Day Three,” workers gathered at a bus yard to demand contract justice and that the fired leaders be reinstated. The police asked them to leave, but workers quoted contract language allowing such gatherings. In spite of this, Steve Kirschbaum was served with four felonies on July 4: assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, trespassing, breaking and entering and malicious destruction of property. These charges — two of which have been dropped — are wholly false, as dozens of witnesses will testify. In contrast, the prosecution has just two witnesses.
Kirschbaum’s trial was scheduled for Feb. 2. A massive blizzard hit Boston that day, yet over 75 people came out in support. I was part of a solidarity delegation from Detroit with two other youth activists and a longtime UAW militant.
The struggle of the Boston school bus drivers and Detroit are linked, not only by racist national oppression but in the struggle against Veolia. Following some 30,000 water shutoffs, Veolia has become a consultant in the push to privatize the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Like the courageous school bus drivers, we have to struggle to win.
Joe Mchahwar is a member of Detroit FIST and Workers World Party. This article was adapted from a talk he gave at a Feb. 21 public forum on the struggle legacy of Malcolm X. Mchahwar has been to Boston twice to help in the effort against Veolia.