Boston rally demands rehiring of fired school bus drivers

Supporters of four Boston school bus drivers fired for the union activity rallied on February 1 at the offices of Veolia Transportation demanding that the company immediately rehire the workers.

The solidarity action was organized by United Steelworkers USW) Local 8751, the union of the fired workers and other school bus drivers and workers in Boston, and endorsed by leaders of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, the Boston Central Labor Council, USW District 4, and other Boston unions.

Speakers accused Veolia of carrying out a union busting war on Local 8751.

The four drivers–Steve Gillis, Andre Francois, Steven Kirschbaum, and Garry Murchison–were fired because of a labor dispute last October.

Gillis is the local’s vice president and pension administrator, Francois the recording secretary and Charlestown chief steward, Murchison a steward and former president, and Kirschbaum the grievance chair.

Veolia, a worldwide corporation based in France that specializes in the privatization of public services, was awarded the Boston school bus contract in 2013.

In June, the company signed an agreement with Local 8751 to continue to honor the union’s contract.

But as soon as Veolia began operating summer school bus service in July, it became clear that the company had no intention of honoring the agreement.

“They blatantly and systematically violated nearly every article (of the contract),” said a statement by Local 8751.

Among other things, Veolia changed the way workers’ in and out time was recorded resulting in pay check errors and shortages.

The company also sped up route times causing reduced wages and safety problems and tried to reduce the amount that it had agreed to pay for worker disability insurance.

Between July and October, the union filed 175 grievances about Veolia’s contract violation and 18 unfair labor practices charges with the National Labor Relations Board.

Things came to a head on October 7, when the company demanded that workers complete job application forms to reapply for their jobs.

The union thought this matter had been settled in June when the company signed its agreement with the union.

When workers came to work on October 8, they asked to meet with company officials to discuss the new applications and other grievances. Such meetings are allowed by the contract.

Management refused and a standoff ensued.

At about 11:00 A.M., the company locked the gates to the bus barn and sent the workers home.

The company then told the public that a wildcat strike had interrupted school bus service.

The USW international office issued a statement telling the workers to return to work.

“This activity does not represent the majority of our members, who believe that our issues with Veolia Transportation must be addressed through proper avenues including our contractual grievance procedure and the National Labor Relations Board,” said John Shinn, director of USW District 4.

The workers returned to work, and the union officers identified as the leaders of the action were fired.

Testifying in November before the Boston City Council, Kirschbaum said that despite what the company contends, there never was a wildcat strike.

“What we’ve said all along is that what happened to the Boston school bus drivers on October the 8th was an orchestrated and well-calculated effort at union-busting,” he said. “And, we don’t raise this rhetorically. There is documented evidence that this company participated in an illegal lockout in violation of this collective bargaining agreement they signed, article 16, and more importantly, the United States federal law under the National Labor Relations Act.”

The incident in Boston isn’t the first time that Veolia has acted aggressively to either break or weaken a union of its workers.

The East Bay Express reports that in 2011 the NLRB cited Veolia with illegal activity including refusing to bargain in good faith with union bus drivers in Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona.

Veolia signed a settlement agreeing to stop its illegal activities, but in a subsequent complaint, the NLRB said that Veolia ignored the terms of the settlement and continued its illegal practices.

Veolia’s activities resulted in a six-day strike that only ended after the NLRB began to enforce a default order against the company for its illegal activity.

The NLRB also sided with bus drivers in Las Vegas who accused the company of retaliation for firing union workers for their union activity.

In Escambia County, Florida, Veolia bus drivers staged a one-day unfair labor practices strike after the company refused to bargain in good faith and refused to implement scheduled pay increases.

Veolia’s action led to a decision by county commissioners to end the country’s bus service contract with Veolia.

Back in Boston, Bishop Filipe Teixeira speaking at the solidarity rally asked Boston’s new mayor Martin Walsh to side with the fired workers by urging Veolia to reinstate them.

Walsh, formerly president of Laborers International Union of North America Local 223, issued a statement saying that the NLRB was the proper venue for resolving the fairness of the firings.

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