In a stunning victory, the militant, fighting rank and file of the Boston school bus drivers’ union, United Steelworkers Local 8751, voted in the full slate of Team Solidarity candidates, led by four illegally fired leaders, on the union’s Executive Board.
The April 30 election was the largest voter turnout in the history of the local and resulted in an unprecedented landslide vote by more than 3 to 1 for the Team Solidarity ticket. The membership sent a clear message to Veolia/Transdev, the union-busting school bus management company, as well as to Boston Public Schools and Mayor Marty Walsh, that they will fight and win a just contract and the rehiring of their leaders. They will also unite with the communities they serve to struggle for Equal Quality Education.
The new executive board-elect of the 850-strong union, whose members are largely Haitian, Cape Verdean and African-American, includes President Andre Francois, long-time chief steward; Vice President Stevan Kirschbaum, a founder of the local; Treasurer Georgia Scott, veteran of the 1965 Civil Rights battle on Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala.; Financial Secretary Steven Gillis, the outgoing vice president and benefits administrator; Recording Secretary Claude “Tou Tou” St. Germain, a Fanmi Lavalas activist; Grievance Committee members Garry Murchison, a three-term past president, Frantz Mendes, two-term president, and Richard Laine; Trustees Frantz “Fan Fan” Cadet, Fred Floreal and Judy Long; Guide Chantal Suffrant Casimir; Guards Adriano Barbosa and Ludnay Pierre; and Accident Review Committee members Jerome Samir Stanley, Kathy Moore and Robert Salley. Murchison led the local’s last five-week strike in 1991, which ended with a 48-hour occupation of the mayor’s office.
Veolia illegally fired Francois, Gillis, Kirschbaum and Murchison in November 2013, following a company-ordered, police department-enforced lockout on Oct. 8, 2013, which occurred after the local requested an emergency meeting. The lockout occurred in the midst of a three-month fight with the new company over wage theft, its refusal to honor the drivers’ long-standing contract and Veolia’s illegal demand — because it’s in violation of the contract — made the day before, that even 40-year veteran drivers must file new hire applications.
A small clique of business-minded, company-inspired opponents, including the current president — who bowed out during the election campaign — tried to turn the membership against Team Solidarity’s fighting slate. They bombarded members with the message: “Don’t vote for the people who were fired. They won’t do you any good.”
The climax of year-long bargaining over a new concessionary contract was the company’s divisive campaign that included pushing a “final” proposal with no amnesty for the fired leaders and using false “retro-pay” payroll documents produced by management. But the members voted for the new board based on their personal experience with Team Solidarity’s leaders, who have filed hundreds of their grievances, administered and defended their benefits, and fiercely fought for them and the union’s survival during the nearly two years since Veolia and the mayor’s office began their union-busting assault.
Campaign intensifies to reinstate the four
In the campaign’s final week, opponents led a barrage of red-baiting, vicious lies and attacks on the union’s political work. The day of the election, the company copied and its collaborators handed out an article from a Zionist website with photos of Kirschbaum and Gillis that linked their support for Palestinian rights with the Boston Marathon bombing.
The company stoogies attacked the active support of Team Solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement and political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal; for their solidarity with Cuba; for their opposition to every imperialist war from El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s to Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen; and for traveling to Venezuela, Colombia and Haiti in support of workers and socialist movements fighting U.S.-sponsored coups and death squads.
Nevertheless, Kirschbaum and Gillis, two well-known socialists, had the backing of the membership. The vote for them and the whole slate of revolutionary-minded candidates is a barometer of Local 8751’s general class consciousness. It is, in a much smaller arena, analogous to socialist labor leader Eugene Debs getting a million votes for U.S. president while in jail for opposing World War I. And it brings a tremendous surge of rank-and-file power to the fight against Veolia and its austerity-driven sponsors.
“The air-pressure needle reads like a tornado is coming,” Gillis said of the workers.
The union is now intensifying its battle to get the four leaders reinstated. Thousands of leaflets are being distributed throughout Boston, asking people to call Mayor Walsh and demand that he order their rehiring by Veolia — which changed its name to Transdev in the wake of publicity over its international union-busting actions and its infrastructure support for the brutal occupation of Palestine.
The mayor’s vendor contract with the company gives the city the sole authority to settle all grievances. Walsh can order the immediate reinstatement of the four with full back pay.
With this election, Team Solidarity has moved from an opposition faction within the local to become the governing body-elect, with a clear mandate to carry forward its militant fightback program.
In addition to demanding the rehiring of the leaders, the local now will intensify activities to unite with the communities against the Boston Public School’s massive budget-cutting campaign and raise demands for Equal Quality Education for BPS’s predominantly students of color. The mayor’s appointed School Committee has voted austerity that calls for closing schools, further privatization through charter school expansion, cutting back summer programs for at-risk youth and nutritional offerings systemwide, kicking middle school students off school buses, as well as reductions in union staff and services throughout the system.
Two-year battle with Veolia
Veolia, a Paris-based global conglomerate, took over management of Boston school bus transportation on July 1, 2013. Despite signing an agreement to honor all terms and conditions of United Steelworkers Local 8751’s existing contract, the company soon violated nearly every article regarding wages, benefits and working conditions. In August 2013, the Steelworkers filed 18 unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. And on Oct. 7, the company tried to force the drivers to fill out new hire applications.
A critical moment in the battle with Veolia began on Oct. 8. At 5 a.m. that morning, the drivers reported to work and demanded a meeting with the company to discuss the company’s total failure to honor the union contract. Veolia’s top management and Boston school administrators were for the first time on site at the bus yards before sunrise. Management refused to meet for hours and then called in the police, locked the gates and evicted the drivers and City Councilor Charles Yancey, threatening them all with arrest for trespassing.
The workers’ request for a meeting was legally protected union activity and the company’s lockout was a violation of the contract and federal law. Veolia then falsely alleged that the members had gone on a wildcat strike, a claim that was trumpeted by former Mayor Thomas Menino, the BPS administration and the Boston media. Veolia then singled out and fired the four union leaders.
Team Solidarity immediately launched an intense campaign to rehire the four and get a just contract. It held near-weekly picket lines and seven Solidarity Day rallies that turned out thousands of union and community supporters, including the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and the Steelworkers International. After a rally and drivers’ break room briefing June 30, 2014, the date of the contract’s expiration, Veolia managers and the Boston Police Department concocted frame-up felony charges against Kirschbaum, including breaking and entering, trespassing, and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon.
For eight months Team Solidarity mobilized support for Kirschbaum, holding pack-the-court rallies, national call-in days to the district attorney and mayor, and weekly bus yard rallies. Team Solidarity’s defense team exposed the absurdity and political motivation of the perjured charges during a three-day trial, and on March 5 a jury returned a unanimous verdict to acquit Kirschbaum after only 10 minutes of deliberation.
During the trial, the prosecutor — whose closing arguments were scripted verbatim by Veolia’s attorney — asked a union member if Kirschbaum did a good job fighting for the membership. She replied, “Perfect.”
Witness after witness conveyed the uncompromising, relentless commitment of the local. This union has fought for the membership and stood in solidarity with every movement for justice since its formation in the 1970s, when it was on the front lines opposing school segregation and defending students of color from years of violent, racist attacks.
Milt Neidenberg, a decades-long steelworker, Teamsters retiree and ally of Local 8751 since its founding, told Workers World: “Local 8751’s fight against Veolia and Boston’s power structure is part of a growing, increasingly active, broadening labor movement, such as the national strikes by low-wage workers from Walmart to McDonald’s demanding $15 and a union. Veolia is one of these global giants, whose primary business tactics specialize in union busting as essential to its drive to lower workers’ pay [in order] to increase corporate profits and stockholder dividends, which for the 1% now dwarf many nations’ economies.
“Veolia low-bids while promising governments a hired gun to privatize transportation, energy, water and environmental resources and waste management,” Neidenberg continued. “That’s why Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s ‘Right to Work’ governor and Wall Street’s Republican presidential nominee, just entered talks with Veolia to privatize his state’s water supply. The results are everywhere war with the unions and service cutbacks and rate hikes for the public. Local 8751’s historic electoral sweep for Team Solidarity, a mandate for social unionism, points to the promising potential for waging a successful workers’ counter-offensive. It’s time for all to step up to their defense and win a victory for all.”
In the U.S. transportation field alone, Veolia has attacked rapid transit unions in San Francisco — where two replacements were killed on the tracks during two Veolia-forced strikes in 2013 — as well as Pensacola, Fla.; Phoenix; Las Vegas; Baltimore; Denver; Seattle; Racine, Wis.; and smaller cities from coast to coast. Amalgamated Transportation Union International President Larry Hanley termed that “a path of destruction” and “management train wreck” in his June 2013 report on Veolia. Now is the time for the militant social unionism of Local 8751 to be taken up around the country. Their victories show the power of militant resistance.
To join the fight, call Mayor Walsh today at 617-635-4500, and go to TeamSolidarity.org and “Team Solidarity — The Voice of United School Bus Workers” (tinyurl.com/KY09HYS) on Facebook.