In the working class Boston neighborhood of Dorchester, hundreds of labor and community leaders and rank & file workers jammed the streets Feb. 1 in front of the headquarters of one of the planet’s biggest conglomerate corporations, Paris-based Veolia. Their loudspeakers, instruments, world music and voices filled the air with demands for “Union Justice, Now!” and “Down with Veolia’s Union-Busting!”
It was a militant outpouring that even the Boston Globe and other mainstream media could not ignore.
The protesters had answered the call for “Solidarity Day” II from United Steelworkers Local 8751, the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the Greater Boston Labor Council, City Councilor Charles Yancey, the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts and dozens of community, labor and anti-war organizations to “Rehire the School Bus Drivers 4”.
The City of Boston deemed its new school bus management contract with Veolia “highly advantageous” for its promise to cut millions of dollars from drivers’ wages and benefits. In return, the city provided a unique, specified 50-cents-on-the-dollar kickback/sweetener in “savings” to the company.
But when Veolia began shorting drivers’ pay and shredding the union’s contract on July 1, 2013, the drivers called it blatant union busting and fought back with 16 Unfair Labor Practice charges, over 300 grievances, informational marches, picketlines, bulletins and daily yard meetings that put Veolia on notice that Local 8751 will vigorously defend its members’ rights and 40 years of contract progress.
The case of the fired leaders and the Local’s viw video of Solidarity Day marchstruggle to defend itself from this imposed austerity, became a rallying point Feb. 1 for school workers and educators fighting budget cuts and demanding equal, quality education; postal workers and community residents campaigning to save postal services; telephone, food, commercial and hotel workers, themselves fending off austerity and waging valiant campaigns to organize low-wage workers at giant, international corporations like Verizon, Walmart and McDonalds; and anti-war and political activists drawing connections between wars abroad and oppression at home from Boston to Palestine; and civil rights and community leaders who came to join the drivers’ struggle against racism and for economic justice.
Local 8751’s militant women spokespeople, Chantal Casimir, Lela Roseboro and Kiett Baptiste, fired up the crowd. Bishop Felipe Texiera, a long-time labor and immigrant rights activist, called on Boston’s political leaders to represent those who service the city’s most precious cargo, the children, not the 1% corporate elite.
Rich Rogers, from the Greater Boston Labor Council, came with the 154 union-strong federation’s commitment to “Speak out against this injustice!” and vowed that corporations who commit unfair labor practices are not welcome in Boston. “They have a responsibility to honor the union contract. The city is paying for that contract, and it’s wrong,” declared Rogers. City Councilor Charles Yancey called for an in-depth, council investigation into Veolia’s lock-out and labor practices. “We are not going to tolerate anyone disrespecting our workers, particularly those workers who transport our precious children every day,” Yancey said.
Steelworkers International staff representative Andrew Slipp called the drivers’ fight “a noble cause”, and vowed the international’s full support until victory.
Paul Kilduf, president of the American Postal Workers’ Union Local 100 and a leader of the Coalition to Save Grove Hall Post Office joined Ross Kiely of United Food and Commercial Workers 1459, in pledging their organizations’ resources and total solidarity to force Veolia to restore the fired leaders and defend the drivers’ contract.
Dumond Louis, President of Local 8751, laid out the members’ ultimatum: “Veolia has a choice, either get it right, or we will get it right for Veolia. We will ask the city to get rid of Veolia”.
Nancy Murray from the Boston Palestinian Solidarity Committee and Riana Good from Jewish Voice for Peace condemned Veolia for having run segregated buses in the occupied territories and for dumping the refuse of illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank. They brought cheers and chants of, “Union Up! Veolia Down!” with news of recent victories to “Dump Veolia” from St. Louis to London to Richmond, Calif. to Massachusetts’ own recent decision to cut off Veolia’s $4 billion commuter rail contract.
Tony Yovo, fired by Veolia from his job as a SuperShuttle driver at BWI airport, outraged and inspired the growing crowd with greetings from his mostly West African membership, who are staging militant actions to stop what he described as “Veolia’s wage slavery.” “We’ll be there!” was the overwhelming response to his request to bring Boston’s solidarity to Baltimore’s Workers Assembly on Feb. 15.
Former Roxbury City Councilor Chuck Turner reminded the crowd of the bus drivers’ union’s concrete solidarity with the communities’ civil rights and justice struggles going back four decades. Peoples Power Assembly national organizer Larry Homes captured the significance of the rally, stating, “All of Boston’s low wage workers are inspired by this struggle. This is not just a Boston struggle, or a U.S. struggle – we are in a global struggle against capitalism and austerity!”
Ralliers greeted Boston’s elder statesperson, Mel King, who waged a Rainbow Coalition campaign and nearly became Boston’s first African-American mayor in 1983, with rousing applause when the 85-year-old King surprised the crowd. “I could not not be here today,” King declared. “The school bus drivers have stood with us since 1974.”
Darrin Howell, a lead organizer of SEIU 1199’s low-wage workers campaign, called the crowd into the street for a march to Veolia’s barbed-wire encircled office.
Bolstered by the march energy, Johnnie McGinness, President of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM) and Sandra MacIntosh, coordinator of the Coalition for Equal Quality Education (CEQE) both recognized the historic role of the school bus drivers’ union in fighting school segregation in Boston since 1974, defeating the 2009 “5 zone plan” and opposing the 2013 Boston Public School’s “walk to school” plan, which deprives students of color and poor whites access to the best schools outside of their neighborhoods. Litu Rep described intolerable conditions inside U.S. retailers’ sweatshop factories in Bangladesh, and condemned Veolia’s attempts to privatize water supplies there and throughout Asia. Vanessa Matamoros, from the Boston Bolivarians, inspired the demonstration to cheers with greetings from Venezuela, where the people have elected a workers’ president, Nicolás Maduro, who is a bus driver and union organizer.
Emily Royce, noting the huge rainbow flag flying from the union’s sound stage, read a statement by Pride at Work, the national AFL-CIO official constituency organization for LGBTQ union members which declared: “We want to let you know that we stand with you in your current struggle and will do whatever we can to make sure that justice prevails for all of you. USW Local 8751 has always been there when the LGBT Labor community has needed you and when we still need you.”
Other speakers included Moonanum James, co-leader of the United American Indians of New England, Judy Rouse from UNITE HERE Local 26 and Justin Eivers from Veterans for Peace. Charles Clemmons, a popular radio commentator on Touch 106 and a strong supporter of the Local 8751, fired up the crowd. Three of the four fired drivers, Francois, Kirschbaum and Murchison, addressed the crowd.
Drivers and their supporters danced/marched back at the rally site to a popular Haitian tune, whose words refer to the violent, U.S. backed coup de etats against elected liberation-theologist and Fanmi Lavalas candidate President Aristide, and proclaim the people’s determination to “chase out the coco rats for good”.
As the 3 hour rally was winding down, the administration of Boston’s new mayor, Marty Walsh, former state representative and head of Boston’s building trades unions, who campaigned with the vocal support of Boston unions and many progressive activists, issued its first statement about the conflict, which read in part: “I urge the parties involved to act quickly in this private matter to ensure that our students have reliable, safe transportation getting to and from school.”