Workers Vanguard No. 1033
1 November 2013
Boston Job Action: No Reprisals Against School Bus Drivers!
Ever since Veolia Transportation took over the operation of the Boston Public Schools bus fleet in July, some 700 drivers, organized in United Steel Workers (USW) Local 8751, have endured a steady stream of abuse from this vindictive employer. Trampling on the union contract negotiated by its predecessor, the new management has flouted long-established work rules, including by arbitrarily reassigning routes, and made a practice of shortchanging drivers on their paychecks when finally getting around to distributing them. Such a declaration of war on the unions is nothing new for Veolia, which is part of a multinational conglomerate with its hooks in several major industries across the globe. It is no coincidence that Bay Area Rapid Transit shelled out nearly $400,000 to bring in Veolia’s Thomas P. Hock as the chief negotiator with its unions earlier this year and had this notorious outfit run scab shuttles when union members went on strike (see article on page 12).
Boston’s embattled school bus drivers, who are largely Haitian, Cape Verdean and Latino, fought back. On the morning of October 8, they reported to work at their assigned hours but refused to board their buses until management agreed to meet with the union. The bosses would have none of it: workers were ordered off company property, and the gates were locked behind them. Pickets went up at all four bus yards in protest, even though the USW district director criminally disavowed the job action. The next day, bus service resumed as Veolia sat down with representatives from Local 8751. Here the union reps presented a list of demands, beginning with “complete and total amnesty” for all members.
In response, the company served letters of suspension to Local 8751 grievance committee chairman Stevan Kirschbaum and vice president Steve Gillis. A few days later, recording secretary Andre Francois and stewards Garry Murchison and Richard Lynch were also suspended. Even as the threat of further reprisals hangs over their heads, the workforce remains unbowed. Large numbers of drivers and other supporters turned out for rallies outside the disciplinary hearing for the “School Bus Union 5” on October 23 and 28. With Veolia gunning for their jobs, the hearing is scheduled to continue. All Boston city labor should demand: Reinstate all suspended union officials! No reprisals against bus drivers!
The city rulers and their kept media have fanned the flames against Local 8751, with Democratic Party mayor Thomas Menino vowing to “make sure this illegal behavior has consequences.” Ripping a page from the “red scare” playbook, the mayor especially wants the heads of Kirschbaum and Gillis, who are supported by the reformist Workers World Party (WWP), because they are a “rogue element” and “rabble rousers who cause trouble.” In a thinly veiled attempt to stoke the city’s ever-glowing embers of anti-black and anti-immigrant hostility, he also berated the workforce as “selfish people who only want to cause disruption in our city.” A City Hall aide contemptuously added that “most of these drivers did not know what was going on.”
The very opposite is true: the drivers knew the score all too well. They did not fold in the face of Veolia’s intransigence or the efforts of the USW regional leadership to squash the walkout. When the Local 8751 president tried to convince the drivers at the Readville bus depot to resume work with nothing to show for their protest by pleading that “we have to do it legally,” he was shouted down with cries of “no!” If workers over the years had confined themselves to what the bosses deem legal, as the labor bureaucrats preach, there never would have even been unions in the first place.
The school bus drivers union traces its history back four decades to the fight to integrate Boston’s public schools through busing. When these plans were defeated by an alliance of liberals in Congress and howling mobs of racists in the streets, the floodgates were opened to a nationwide assault on school desegregation, foreshadowing the rollback of hard-won civil rights for black people nationwide. (See “As Racist Mobs Rampaged, Liberals and Reformists Knifed Busing,” WV No. 921, 26 September 2008.)
At the time, the Spartacist League intervened into the struggles to defend busing as a minimal application of the elementary democratic right of black people to equality in education. We called on the integrated union movement, including the city’s bus drivers, to mobilize labor/black defense of the besieged black school children. But the WWP and Socialist Workers Party acted as lackeys for black Democratic Party liberals who sought to channel outrage over the racist backlash into calls for state intervention, spreading the illusion that the same capitalist state that murderously repressed black militants could be relied on to defend black rights. Workers World is still very much into burnishing the credentials of black Democrats, such as councilman Charles Yancey, for purportedly “fighting racism and injustice in Boston” (workers.org, 2 December 2007).
Countless defeats have resulted from hitching struggles to the Democratic Party—one of the two main parties of the class enemy. Yancey, who accompanied union officials to Veolia offices during the lockout, later announced on his Facebook page that he “DID NOT support the actions taken by the bus drivers.” He might take a different posture than the mayor, who wants to strangle Local 8751 and bring back neighborhood schools. Yet “friend of labor” Democrats are no less committed to maintaining the capitalist system of exploitation in which the roots of black oppression are lodged. Avowed socialists who are respected by their co-workers, such as Kirschbaum and Gillis, can help give militant expression to the immediate demands of a workforce. But lacking a program for the political independence of the proletariat, they cannot chart a way forward for the labor movement, much less for getting rid of the system of capitalist wage slavery altogether.