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Buses return, but city stays wary

A one-day strike by school bus drivers was halted Wednesday as buses rolled throughout Boston, but city officials warned that the labor dispute remained volatile and urged families to continue making back-up transportation plans.

“This is a day-by-day situation,” said interim Superintendent John McDonough, expressing frustration over a lack of resolution. “We don’t want to do this forever. We want certainty.”

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Even as relieved parents cheered the sight of familiar yellow buses rumbling through the streets, tension flared over whether the drivers should face disciplinary action. The union requested amnesty for all drivers who participated in the stoppage, while the private contractor that oversees the city’s four bus yards, Veolia Corp., explored disciplinary action. The union’s contract forbids strikes, and employees could face termination.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, irate over the chaos caused by the strike, blamed the stoppage on a “rogue element” in the union. City officials said the “renegades” bullied drivers into striking, then tried similar tactics again Wednesday, even blocking the entrance of one of the bus yards with vehicles. But the other drivers refused to go along.

Two Menino administration officials zeroed in on two union leaders, accusing them of taking advantage of a membership that includes many immigrants from Haiti, Cape Verde, and Latin America who may be unfamiliar with procedures in the United States to air their grievances.

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“This was a group of renegades who decided to violate the terms of the contract of every driver who came to work,” said Marie St. Fleur, the city’s director of internal governmental relations. “That faction has caused intimidation and created disruption in the lives of families and children of this city.”

Union and Veolia officials met into the night at the Best Western Adams Inn in Quincy, and a union spokesman said afterward that Veolia has placed two labor leaders on paid administrative leave, pending further investigation. The suspended leaders were not named and the reason for their disciplinary action was not given.

Also, although the union said its demands were not met, its leaders and the company urged drivers to continue transporting students as negotiations continue.

John King, a Veolia vice president, said the company is investigating seven other union members who may have played a role in preparing the illegal strike. King said he expects buses to run as normal Thursday.

The strike — the first in more than two decades — stranded thousands of students at home and at bus stops. Parents scrambled to drive children to school or hopped on the subway. Police cruisers even delivered some children to school. Veolia later unsuccessfully sought a federal injunction to stop the strike.

For the School Department and families, it was the latest busing crisis, coming two years after chronically late buses forced parents to drive their children to school and prompted school officials to overhaul its routing system and make other changes.

The dispute between the union and Veolia first flared in July, when the company took over the day-to-day operations of bus system from a previous contractor. Union officials have raised myriad issues, from changes in morning check-in procedures to the use of GPS tracking systems to determine pay rate and overtime.

In August, the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, but a resolution appeared to be nowhere in sight, especially in light of the federal government shutdown, frustrating drivers.

Garner Jubique, who works out of the Washington Street bus yard, said Wednesday that he had every intention of working on Tuesday but was compelled not to because of the gripes members had with Veolia.

“They don’t respect us,” he said before resuming work. “They have so many violations. That’s why we are so angry. . . . It’s not a bus driving problem. It’s a company problem.”

Union officials said drivers returned to their jobs in good faith, after being promised a mid-morning meeting with Veolia to hash out the issues.

For many families, Wednesday started with considerable uncertainty. Even as the School Department reported at dawn that drivers were boarding their buses, they also warned parents not all of them might make it on the road. They urged parents to monitor the School Department’s website and the media for updates.

Karol Dawkins didn’t want to take any chances. She drove her two daughters to the Mission Hill School in Jamaica Plain, kissing them goodbye. She said she remained nervous about the labor dispute.

“I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet,” said Dawkins before delivering a message to union leaders. “Strike all you want. Just give us some notice.”

While all buses made it out of the yards with 91 percent arriving to school on time, city and school officials implemented a contingency plan in case service halts again Thursday morning. Parents can drop their children off at school an hour before the opening bell. Students also will be excused if they are tardy or absent because of transportation problems.

Some parents worried about the possibility of being left in the lurch again.

“What will it take for the union to do it again? What issue will be enough
to set them off? said John St. Amand, vice chairman of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Committee, whose daughter attends school in Brighton.

Some parents empathized with the bus drivers’ plight.

“They’re trying to make things better for themselves,” said Javier Estrada, who unexpectedly had to take his 5-year-old son to school in Jamaica Plain on Tuesday, causing him to be late for work. “They also have families to feed. I think politicians often forget that.”

McDonough said the School Department had been hearing about the possibility of a “job action” by the union over the last two weeks, but nothing materialized. He said they decided against notifying the public Monday about the possible stoppage Tuesday, which they thought would be limited to one bus yard, because they had been unable to confirm the information.

“We didn’t feel justified . . . to put all families on alert,” McDonough said.

Union officials presented Veolia with more than a dozen demands on Wednesday to resolve the dispute, including the issues about amnesty and the GPS system.

Other demands called for “adequate” break rooms and restrooms; proper benefits for all employees; withdrawal of the “bogus ‘Veolia Employee Handbook,’ ” which they said contradicted some union contract provisions; fix flooding problems; and less School Department monitoring of bus yards, saying, “Get the School Department agents out of our faces and out of our private sector business!”

The latter request refers to the crackdown on tardy buses.

Two Menino administration officials said the bus stoppage and intimidation were orchestrated by Steve Gillis, the union’s vice president, and Steve Kirschbaum, chairman of the union’s grievance committee. The union’s president, Dumond Louis, has denounced the strike and so has the union’s parent organization, the United Steelworkers.

Kirschbaum, who has driven a bus since the 1970s, has long been a familiar sight during contentious school issues. He’s often seen talking through a bullhorn during rallies preceding School Committee meetings on school closures or changes in the assignment process, often advising participants of their rights to hold signs during meetings.

The two declined to comment Wednesday. But Alfred Gordon, a union attorney, defended Gillis and Kirschbaum, saying they are respected among members and “have served this union and their members of this union for many dozens of years.”

Maria Cramer of Globe staff and correspondents Patrick D. Rosso and Haven Orecchio-Egresitz contributed to this report. James Vaznis can be reached at James.Vaznis@ globe.com. Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan. irons@globe.com
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