The unique approach of Boston School Bus Union, Steelworkers Local 8751 offers a much needed new blueprint for building power within poor and working class communities. This particular union marks the spot where organized labor meets oppressed and marginalized people where they are. During my travels to Boston, it was quite inspiring to see a local union work hand in hand with neighborhood youth against police violence. It was quite encouraging to see the rank-and-file of the Boston school bus drivers work with parents and community members to organize against school closings and badly timed budget cuts to public education.
USW Local 8751 was founded in 1978 through the efforts of bus driver organizers who helped to desegregate Boston public schools. It was four years prior, in 1974, that busloads of defenseless children were attacked by racist vigilantes, armed mobs and the Ku Klux Klan inBoston’s Roxbury district. The school bus drivers who worked these “desegregation routes” were not only physically attacked in the streets; they were harassed on the job byschool administrators and parent-teacher organizations. The need for organized camaraderie was not merely a matter of employment – it was a matter of survival.
Veolia Incorporated’s current attack on the Boston School Bus Union was directed in particular at four members of Local 8751: Recording Secretary and Chief Steward, Andre François; Vice President, Steve Gillis; Former Union President, Garry Murchison; and Grievance Chair and union founder, Stevan Kirschbaum. In spite of phony felony charges brought against Kirschbaum by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on behalf of Veolia in July 2014, union members remained diligent and committed to team solidarity – workers remained inspired and dedicated to one common goal. Just recently, in early March of this year, Kirschbaum was found not guilty by a jury of his peers after only 10 minutes of deliberation. The litany of phony charges included breaking and entering, assault and battery, malicious destruction of property and trespassing.
USW Local 8751
The degree of strength, unity and solidarity within Local 8751 is an inspiration to the working class all over the US, actually all over the world. Union organizers and rank-and-file members have stood tall against a corporate parasite for 18 months now. The four leaders who were fired (François, Gillis, Kirshbaum and Murchison) have since exhausted their employment benefits and have had to depend on allies and fellow union members to sustain themselves. In spite of such obstacles, solidarity and team morale remain strong.
Even while fired, the four leaders have continued to organize and build resistance. Weekly rallies and mass meetings have continued to convene at nearby bus yards, union halls and in the community. Solidarity and working class support have poured in from all over the country. Local organizers have continued to coordinate national call-in days to Boston Mayor, Marty Walsh. During the trial of Stevan Kirschbaum, every court hearing was completely packed with community supporters through “people’s mobilizations.”
Their union’s goal is not only to get their four leaders reinstated, but to build a local movement against austerity measures, political repression, racism and re-segregation. Not only is Local 8751 fighting to protect local worker’s rights, they’re fighting to ensure that “Black lives matter” and that children of all races, social strata and ethnic backgrounds have equal access to a good education in Boston.
Here’s a union that is fighting side by side with oppressed communities against gentrification, homelessness and poor housing conditions. They also have a strong foundation in the anti-war and LGBTQ movements. Not only did Local 8751 construct one of the first union contracts to protect LGBTQ workers from on-the-job harassment and employment discrimination; for years now, this particular union has also helped to advance a very important international stance – openly advocating for an end to the Israeli occupation of historic Palestine. In 2012, this was the same union that fought like hell with local community members to keep Roxbury’s Grove Hall Post Office open. Their grassroots approach is well-respected throughout the New England corridor.
Resistance to Veolia’s Sordid Record
Multinational corporate giant, Veolia Incorporated is a French-based global conglomerate founded in 1853 under the orders of Napoleon III. Veolia’s first order of privatization was the control and supply of water throughout France. Unfortunately, Veolia has since then privatized water in Africa, India and Latin America. In Detroit, Michigan, Veolia (also known as Transdev) is the same company presently being consulted to privatize the city’s water and sewage department, this following some 30,000 residential shutoffs in 2014 by city officials.
As of April 2015, Veolia Inc. has accrued more profit from the distribution and resale of water than any other corporation in the world. According to international human rights organization, Global Exchange, “many of its contracts reveal consistent prioritization of private profit at the expense of the environment and public interest.” Until recently, Veolia owned and operated a fleet of segregated buses connecting the West Bank to the apartheid state of Israel, openly discriminating against Palestinians.
Veolia’s trail of corporate greed and worker exploitation has only continued to expand and grow more ruthless. Today, Veolia’s vast business ventures include energy and transportation, waste management and environmental maintenance, television, film and mass media.
The recent squeeze of the Boston School Bus Union is nothing new to Veolia. According to a recent report by local organizers, in the sector of transportation “Veolia has waged anti-union campaigns against bus drivers from San Francisco, Phoenix, Baltimore and Denver…refusing to honor the terms of union contracts, completely ignoring pre-established grievance and arbitration procedures. Since the arrival of Veolia in Boston, bus drivers’ wages, benefits and working conditions have only worsened. Veolia’s corporate strategy of divide and conquer includes union busting and worker intimidation.”
Capitalism and the Working Class
Boston’s public school bus drivers aren’t just fighting for a better contract and higher wages; they’re fighting for their livelihood and quality of life. They’re fighting for the collective well-being of the entire community. The struggle to reinstate the four leaders who were fired is a direct reflection of the struggle to preserve the entire working class, particularly for the working class youth who will inherit these conditions, if not alleviated. That’s what the Occupy Movement was all about – the failure of capitalism and its devastating effects upon the next generation.
The Boston School Bus Union is a prime example of the potential of organized labor and the partnership of oppressed communities. I forgot to mention that USW Local 8751 is comprised of a 95 percent Haitian, African American and Cape Verdean membership, an aesthetic quite unique to organized labor in the US.
As the working class continues to be decimated by capitalism’s ruling elite, more and more families, workers and youth will be looking for alternatives to a living wage. Support the Boston school bus drivers and their right to organize. Support the working class and our right to dignity, self-respect and fair wages. Support the people and our right to live, work and eat. What an honor to learn directly from the rank-and-file.