Henri Toussaint’s two youngest children did not make it to the Irving Middle School today.
“I sacrificed their school this morning,” said Toussaint, one of roughly 800 members of United Steel Workers Local 8751, which represents school bus drivers for the city of Boston.
Standing with other drivers near the Readville bus yard, where they engaged in what they called a “protest” but which Mayor Menino termed an illegal strike, Toussaint said he and his fellow union members had been forced into taking a stand by chronic mismanagement by the city’s school bus contractor, Veolia.
“They provoked us to do it,” he said, an assertion that drew affirmation from other bus drivers nearby. “All we are saying is: ‘Respect our contract. We are not asking for one dime more.’”
Toussaint and other drivers said Veolia, which is in the first year of a five-year contract with the city to handle transportation for the school department, has failed to pay them at the contractual wage rate, has failed to provide paychecks at 5 p.m. Friday as they are supposed to, has violated seniority rules by unilaterally assigning drivers to different routes, and has included phantom payments and phantom deductions on their paychecks, and not provided the tools drivers need to do their jobs safely.
“We care about the children more than anybody else,” Toussaint said. “We’re like parents to them.”
Lisa Jones, a driver since 1988 and a United Steel Workers union delegate at the Readville yard, said that since school opened on Sept. 4, bus drivers have filed complaints more than 200 times, including complaints that they were not getting paid the correct wage and had not been paid for all the time worked.
Especially frustrating to many is what happened just before school opened and drivers spent one day doing dry runs on their routes. Veolia, they said, collectively overpaid drivers $60,000 by miscalculating the wage rate to be used. The company recaptured the money in the next pay check, but also reported the inflated wages to the state unemployment agency — and has refused to notify the state of its error.
Jones said many drivers, who are paid only for the time worked, collect unemplyoment during the summer and during school vacations. Veolia’s error has led the state unemployment agency to question some of the financial information that drivers provide because of the inflated data from Veolia.
“They made us look like liars,” Jones said.
Drivers bristled at the suggestion that their protest was triggered by their opposition to use of GPS devices in school buses. Those devices, they said, have been installed in buses for the past six years, and they have no opposition to their use. But they do question how Veolia is trying to use the data to change some routes, which they say violates their contract.
Drivers said they are willing to stay the course, regardless of criticism that may come their way, because they are convinced their cause is justified. They also seem united in their critical view of Veolia, and their belief that their union is the sole solution to the problems they face in the workplace.
After being ordered out of the bus yard and having the fence padlocked behind them, Readville drivers surrounded Steve Kirschbaum, a veteran of more than 30 years as a bus driver and union activist.
Kirschbaum, chairman of the union’s grievance committee, who gave several fiery speeches to the drivers, did a call and response with drivers.
“We are not going to take it! Are we together?” said Kirschbaum, to which the drivers shouted, “Yes!”
“Are we united?” Kirschbaum continued. Again, the crowd shouted, “Yes!”
“Are we union?”
“Union!” shouted Kirschbaum.
“Union!’’ the drivers replied.