Caught off guard by a strike of Boston’s public school bus drivers on Tuesday morning, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said the city would pursue every legal action possible against the drivers as he asked families to arrange transportation home for their children and cancelled afternoon athletics.
"I want all these bus drivers back to work tomorrow morning,” Menino said during an afternoon press conference at City Hall, ridiculing the “illegal action” taken by the unionized drivers to go on strike in violation of their contract.
Menino said the management company Veolia Transportation, Inc. would go to court on Tuesday afternoon to seek an injunction compelling the drivers to return to work, and promised that if drivers would go back to work his administration would sit down with union leaders to work out disagreements over provisions in their contract.
He said the city would also explore possible disciplinary action against drivers who participated in the strike.
In footage aired on WHDH-Channel 7, bus drivers said their driving schedules are tight, don’t leave enough time for bathroom breaks, and that buses are late because runs are designed to cut costs, not get kids to school on time. Messages left for the Boston Bus Drivers Union were not immediately returned on Wednesday.
United Steelworkers District 4 Director John Shinn said the parent union does not condone the work action taken by the Boston bus drivers or any other violation of their collective bargaining agreement, and has instructed all members of Local 8751 to resume work as soon as possible.
“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," Shinn said in a statement.
More than 33,000 students in the Boston Public School system were impacted on Tuesday morning, leaving parents scrambling to find ways to get their children to school. Menino said bus service would not resume in the afternoon, but said the city would do what it could to make sure no students were stranded at school. The MBTA also offered free rides to any student who can show a school ID; children under 11 years old must be accompanied by an adult.
“The safety of our students was put at risk. Once again an opportunity for learning was deprived,” Interim School Superintendent John McDonough said.
City officials said there have been ongoing conversations between the bus drivers, represented by Steel Workers Local 8751, and management over Illinois-based Veolia Transportation’s dealings with the union and efforts to implement new technology such as GPS tracking and bus routing systems.
Menino said there had been “rumblings” of a labor action over the past couple of weeks, but the mayor said city officials did not know when it might happen and did not want to alarm parents.
While Menino worked to prevent the bus drivers’ strike from dragging on into a second day, the unanticipated walkout brought swift condemnation from both men running for mayor.
“The actions of the school bus drivers’ union were outrageous, unlawful and put the safety of our children at risk. It’s unconscionable what was done this morning and is emblematic of a deeper problem where we do not put our children first when we think about making our Boston public school work,” City Councilor John Connolly said, holding a press conference outside the State House where he planned to testify in support of legislation raising the school dropout age.
Connolly said he had reached out to Menino, McDonough, Transportation Secretary Richard Davey and Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis for information and to discuss solutions. If bus drivers would not return to work, Connolly said, he would support a special appropriation to begin hiring replacement bus drivers, or a court injunction locking out the drivers and allowing the city to use funds from their contract to hire new drivers.
“The bus drivers are under a contract currently that they agreed to do, and to initiate a work stoppage that puts our children at risk is totally unacceptable,” Connolly said. The candidate, leading his rival Rep. Marty Walsh in the most recent poll, said the drivers were involved in discussions over disagreements with provisions in their contract, but he never thought they would “stoop to this level.”
Walsh, a Dorchester Democrat, was in Egleston Square near Roxbury and Jamaica Plain on Tuesday morning receiving the endorsements of former mayoral rivals John Barros and City Councilor Felix Arroyo. He appeared to have cancelled a planned appearance at the State House to testify on the dropout legislation, but issued a statement in the morning blasting the bus drivers.
“Kids and parents must come first. This is wrong. The bus drivers have put our children in harm’s way. This is an illegal action, causing a huge disruption, and I call on the bus drivers to return to work immediately. This is a violation of the contract and cannot be tolerated,” Walsh said.
Connolly was joined outside the State House with half a dozen parents of Boston public school students fuming over the actions taken by bus drivers.
Michelle Novelle, of Roslindale, said she found out about the bus strike at about 6:20 a.m. on Tuesday, sending her scrambling to get five of her children to school on time, including two with autism who typically have door-to-door bus service.
“It’s absolutely inexcusable that they would pull this kind of stunt,” Novelle said, describing how disrupting a morning schedule can be particularly problematic for children with autism who “need routine and predictability.”
Novelle also wondered whether the Boston School Department could have done a better job preparing parents for the possibility of a strike.
“I feel really frustrated because I feel like they should have given us a heads up. I don’t feel they had no idea this was a possibility,” she said.