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Bus drivers’ union leader polarizing, popular

Stevan Kirschbaum, a school bus driver and a union leader, rallied co-workers on Tuesday outside the Readville bus yard. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has called Kirschbaum a “bully.”

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Stevan Kirschbaum, a school bus driver and a union leader, rallied co-workers on Tuesday outside the Readville bus yard. Mayor Thomas M. Menino has called Kirschbaum a “bully.”

He has been a member of the Workers World Party, the All Peoples Congress, and the Coalition for Equal Quality Education.

He has protested a Boston visit by the Ku Klux Klan, fought for better services in his Roslindale neighborhood, and recently posted a Facebook tribute to General Vo Nguyen Giap, the former North Vietnamese military leader.

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He is Stevan Kirschbaum, a longtime school bus driver and union leader being castigated by city officials as the polarizing force behind a wildcat strike that stranded 30,000 Boston pupils without warning Tuesday morning.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino has called Kirschbaum a “bully” and the leader of a “rogue element” within the union. Other city officials and observers, several of whom asked not to be identified for fear of angering the union, described him as menacing, narcissistic, and dangerously disruptive.

But among a large faction of bus drivers, many of whom are Haitian and Cape Verdean immigrants, Kirschbaum is often regarded as their charismatic guide through a bewildering thicket of government bureaucracy and Byzantine labor law.

This loyalty apparently persists despite a repudiation of the strike by the union’s president, Dumond Louis, and its parent organization, the United Steelworkers of America. The union’s contract forbids a strike, and now hundreds of drivers face disciplinary action that could cost some of them their jobs.

“He’s a great leader. He’s one of the founders of this union. A lot of the drivers love him, and we are behind him 100 percent,” said Jean-Claude Toussaint, 57, the chief steward at the Readville school bus yard.

‘We trust him completely. He doesn’t sit in the office. He drives a bus, too.’

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“We trust him completely,” Toussaint added. “He doesn’t sit in the office. He drives a bus, too.”

And on Tuesday, at the Readville bus yard, Kirschbaum drove the protest by exhorting his fellow workers with a chant-amplifying bullhorn.

Kirschbaum, who chairs the union’s grievance committee, has been behind the wheel of a Boston school bus since 1974. During that early phase of court-ordered school desegregation, the job came with a heightened risk of violence. Stones and other missiles were often hurled at buses as they ferried black pupils to South Boston and other white neighborhoods.

Many bus drivers at the time stayed on the job, former union members recalled, not only because it helped pay the bills but because they believed in desegregation’s goal of greater opportunity.

“It was a fight for quality education. It was a crazy time,” Kirschbaum recalled in a 2004 interview with the Globe. He did not return phone and e-mail requests for an interview for this story.

During those early, turbulent years as a driver, Kirschbaum also became a leader in the effort to unionize. In 1978, the union was formed following a raucous strike during which Kirschbaum was one of 14 drivers sentenced to the Charles Street Jail.

“He knows the union business, he knows the contract, he knows all the laws and bylaws, and that’s the reason we’re with him,” Toussaint said, as other drivers nodded in agreement in Readville.

Over the years, however, Kirschbaum’s reputation as a social crusader has been muddied by six strikes, which angered parents and school administrators who charged that the union callously used students to leverage better contracts.

The reaction to the latest strike has been no different.

“He styles himself as being professional, being on the right side of social justice issues, and I think this strike was inconsistent with that,” said Kim Janey, senior project director of Massachusetts Advocates for Children. “This is not good for kids, and we have to do what’s in the best interest of children.”

Kirschbaum’s activism also has been on loud display at School Committee meetings when he has protested school closings, budget cuts, and changes to the school assignment process. Chants, drums, bells, and a bullhorn have been used at various meetings, but Kirschbaum made a new, startling impression in late 2010 when he brought a cardboard coffin to a session at Boston English High to protest school closings.

The coffin, carried to the stage past a stunned audience, proclaimed the “death of education,” one observer recalled.

Despite his controversial tactics, Kirschbaum has helped win a better living for the bus drivers. Their average salary of about $50,000 is competitive with other US cities, said Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a government watchdog group. And Kirschbaum has brought Veolia Corp., a private contractor that employs the drivers, to the bargaining table.

“He’s sort of a ’60s radical guy who likes to stir the pot,” Tyler said.

However, Tyler added, “there are better ways of getting attention through more traditional channels than using the students as the pawns.”

Veolia negotiators did not sit down with the drivers on Thursday but are expected to meet with them again soon, said Valerie Michael, a company spokeswoman. No date had been set by late Thursday afternoon.

Veolia has placed two union officials on paid leave pending further investigation, according to union members. Michael would not say whether Kirschbaum is one of those officials or comment on personnel matters.

The union is demanding that Veolia, which manages the drivers for the city-owned bus fleet, remove GPS devices from the vehicles. The electronic tools, which are used to calculate driver pay and keep track of buses, have been described by Kirschbaum at a Workers World Party convention as “Homeland Security’s intervention into the labor movement.”

Drivers also want better controls over the payroll system. Union members say Veolia has routinely shortchanged drivers since the company assumed control of the bus contract July 1.

“Every day at lunch, we wait in line for 35, 40 minutes to meet with someone in the payroll department about a paycheck they messed up,” Toussaint said. “We are frustrated, we are stressed, and we feel humiliated by this company.”

The union also wants amnesty for all drivers involved in the one-day strike, repairs to flooding and facilities problems, fewer School Department employees at the four bus yards, and discussions between the city and drivers to improve bus routes.

Whatever transpires in the dispute, Kirschbaum is likely to be in the thick of the debate.

Globe correspondent Dan Adams contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at macquarrie@globe.com.
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