Bus drivers, allies push for fired workers to be re-hired

Gintautas Dumcius, News Editor
Feb. 6, 2014

When school bus drivers, warring with the company that oversees the buses, went on strike in early October, in the midst of a mayoral election, they were largely on their own with little political support.

Marty Walsh and John Connolly, two candidates in the middle of a mayoral election, condemned their illegal action, widely described as a “wild cat” strike. A furious Mayor Thomas Menino demanded that they return to work as school officials scrambled to find other ways to get children to school that morning.

Even the United Steelworkers union, which includes the bus drivers as its members, called for them to end the strike.

But last Saturday, the United Steelworkers were singing a different tune, as they joined a rally to reinstate four bus driver union leaders who had been fired as a result of the strike.

The Massachusetts arm of the AFL-CIO also supported the rally and their reinstatement. Despite fliers touting his appearance and organizers who said he would be there, the state’s AFL-CIO chief, Steve Tolman, was “tied up” that day and could not make it, according to one union official who was at the rally.

The rally, held at the corner of Hoyt St. and Dorchester Ave., drew around 150 people. It was also a showcase for several causes, with some attendees pushing pro-Palestinian messages, carrying a Green-Rainbow Party banner, and waving a Sudanese flag.

District 4 Councillor Charles Yancey, the only candidate for mayor the bus drivers’ union endorsed last year, appeared at the rally, as did 1983 mayoral candidate Mel King, and TOUCH 106.1 FM co-founder Charles Clemons.

Andrew Slipp, a staff representative for the United Steelworkers, said his union initially believed in October that it was an illegal strike by rogue bus drivers. “Early on, it appeared to be the case,” Slipp said. But now the union believes the company, Veolia, locked the bus drivers out of the yards.
“Huge difference,” Slipp said.

Rich Rogers, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council, declined to comment when asked whether he believed the bus drivers had an illegal strike. He referred questions on that to Slipp.

But during the rally, Rogers took the microphone and addressed the 200 or so, slamming Veolia and saying his labor group was with the union “100 percent.”

“We will be with this union until this is straightened out,” he said.

Bishop Filipe Teixeira, a frequent presence at a variety of community protests over the years, also spoke. He demanded that Marty Walsh, now the mayor, call Veolia on Monday and tell them to give the four bus drivers their jobs back. “They need to live just like anybody else,” he said.

Walsh, a longtime labor leader, is declining to do so, saying “it’s not my job” and citing the contract the drivers have with Veolia. “There’s a process for the bus drivers to try and get reinstated,” Walsh said on Tuesday. “They can follow the process. There is a collective bargaining agreement in place. They refused to go to work. So, I mean I don’t want to talk too much more about it than that because they’re going through the arbitration process.”

Asked if he still believed it was an illegal strike, Walsh said, “Yeah, at the time I did and I felt the contract in place, you have to live by the terms of the agreement.”

The agreement does not allow for a strike. The union has a list of grievances against Veolia, which took over the contract last year.

Most of the rally’s vitriol was aimed at the company. “We will bring you down,” shouted Steve Kirschbaum, one of the four union members who were fired.