Boston’s mayoral candidates wasted no time today condemning a school bus driver’s strike that disrupted the day for thousands of public school students and turned the focus of the race to how well the two candidates might measure up under such a crisis.
Both City Councilor John R. Connolly and state Representative Martin J. Walsh assailed the surprise stoppage, which left the children stranded on street corners as they awaited buses that never came.
Political observers say the high-profile clash between the city and its contracted bus drivers immediately overshadowed significant developments on the campaign trail.
“This is wrong. It’s wrong for the children. Its wrong for the parents of the city,” Walsh said during a morning news conference he had called to announce he had won the endorsements of Felix Arroyo and John Barros, both former rivals the preliminary mayoral election last month. Instead, Walsh spent the opening segment of what was planned as a celebratory press conference slamming the school bus strike.
“This is illegal, the actions taken by the drivers. I don’t condone it in any shape, manor, or form,” he added.
The bus driver no-show was prompted by a clash between the United Steelworkers Local 8751, which represents the drivers, and Veolia, a company that has managed the city’s school bus drivers since earlier this year.
In a complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the drivers allege that Veolia has refused to bargain with the union and unilaterally implemented changes to terms and conditions of their contract.
City leaders, including Mayor Thomas M. Menino during a City Hall news conference, said points of contention have included changes to the drivers’ health plan and the installation of GPS units in buses -- which union members have long alleged are used to spy on drivers.
Just moments earlier, Connolly had stepped to a microphone outside the State House and laid into the bus drivers and urging the city to take any steps necessary to get the buses running.
“The actions of the school bus union this morning were outrageous, unlawful, and put the safety of our school children at risk,” Connolly said. “We need to deal with this swiftly, and we need to make sure we’re putting our children first.”
Noting that he had spoken to the mayor and schools superintendent, Connolly then called for the city to either appropriate new funding to hire additional drivers until the dispute could be resolved or to pursue a court-ordered injunction to allow for additional drivers to be found.
“Without notice, the school bus drivers disrupted the lives of thousands of families,” Connolly said. “And if the school bus drivers will not go back to work immediately then the city and the school department needs to take every action at their disposal to get replacement drivers in place as soon as possible.”
Connolly was on Beacon Hill testifying in favor of new legislation aimed at reducing the high school dropout rate, but the strike hijacked the news coverage of the day.
Political observers said that potential voters might wonder how the next mayor would keep something like this from happening or handle it under their watch.
“Nothing is more traumatic when the pattern of your life is disrupted. The city was absolute chaos this morning,” said Larry DiCara, a former city councillor and prominent observer of Boston politics. “It’s not a question of coming down on the school bus drivers, it’s how hard either of them would come down on them were they mayor.”
The stoppage is the second major union-related issue to crop up since Walsh and Connolly won spots in the Nov. 5 final election. An arbitrator recently ruled in favor of pay increases for Boston Police officers, a move that forced both candidates to weigh in on whether - if elected - they would support the new contract.
Today’s school bus driver dispute was rife with symbolism because Connolly has crafted himself as the education candidate while Walsh is widely regarded as a union supporter.
“It blew away a lot of what they were both expecting to be the headlines today, but that’s kind of what being mayor is all about. It’s the job they’re running for,” said John Berg, professor of government at Suffolk University. “Part of what voters are looking for is which guy is going to step up when there is a crisis.”
The school bus stoppage also cut to one of the major questions asked of the Walsh campaign at forums throughout the race: How would he, as a former union president, handle high-profile labor disputes?
Asked whether he was wary of criticizing the bus drivers union, the candidate -- who has continuously insisted that he would be able to oversee tough negotiations with unions despite their heavy contributions to his campaign -- reiterated that the drivers were out of line.
“There’s no rock and no hard place.” Walsh said. “I come down on behalf of the side of children and the families.”