At a fiery Dorchester rally backed by the state’s largest labor group, several speakers urged Mayor Martin J. Walsh on Saturday to push for reinstatement of four Boston school bus drivers fired in November after they were accused of instigating an illegal strike.
Veolia Corp., which manages Boston’s school buses, fired the workers after most buses never drove off their lots on Oct. 8 and many of the 30,000 students who take school buses each morning were left without transportation.
Union activists contend that Veolia locked the workers out of the bus yards, preventing them from driving after they tried to meet with company officials to hash out their grievances over pay, benefits, and other issues.
The activists have held several rallies urging that the workers be rehired, but this was the first one endorsed by the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts, the umbrella labor group that represents 750 unions statewide.
Standing on the back of a truck, Bishop Filipe Teixeira of St. Martin de Porres Church in Dorchester, called on Walsh, a former labor leader, to urge Veolia to rehire the fired drivers.
“I hope Mayor Walsh will do the right thing by his brothers,” Teixeira told the rally of about 150 cheering activists gathered outside the gates of a city school bus yard. “We know that you are union and that you love unions. Do the right thing.”
Walsh, in a statement released after the rally, declined to call for the rehiring of the drivers.
“There is a National Labor Relations Board process in place to address this issue,” he said. “I urge the parties involved to act quickly in this private matter to ensure that our students have reliable, safe transportation getting to and from school.”
Speaker after speaker at the rally denounced Veolia for firing the drivers and accused the company of trying to bust the bus drivers’ union.
“It’s an absolute disgrace,” said Richard Rogers, the executive secretary treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council, a federation of 154 unions. “They have a responsibility to honor the union contract. The city is paying for that contract, and it’s wrong.”
Fliers for the rally listed Steven Tolman, the president of the state AFL-CIO, as one of the speakers, but he did not show up.
Tolman said he was in Ashland at a meeting of prominent business executives and nonprofit leaders. He said he supports the fired workers but does not believe Walsh should intervene on their behalf. “Marty’s got to run the city,” Tolman said. “He can’t get involved in every labor dispute.”
Veolia released a statement Saturday saying the rally “does not legitimatize the illegal strike.” The statement said the workers’ contract “specifically prevents work stoppages and strikes, and provides grounds for termination of employees who lead and instigate strikes.”
Veolia also said there is an ongoing arbitration process for the drivers to air grievances.
“In the meantime, claims of company refusals to meet and a lockout of employees as after-the-fact justifications for the work stoppage are as false today as when they were first made by the radical element” of the bus drivers’ union following the strike, Veolia said. “As time goes by, neither the facts surrounding October 8th nor the reasons justifying the termination of these four employees, change.”
The fired drivers said they believe they were targeted because they have all been leaders in the bus drivers’ union.
“They can’t pick four people out of 800 individuals and say, ‘You did something different,’ ” said Garry Murchison, 61, a former president of the union and 30-year veteran bus driver who was fired last year.
The speakers at the rally included Mel King, the longtime activist and 1983 mayoral candidate, and Chuck Turner, the former city councilor convicted in a 2010 federal bribery case. Councilor Charles C. Yancey was the only current officeholder to attend. He urged other elected officials in Boston to voice their support for the fired drivers.
“We are not going to tolerate anyone disrespecting our workers, particularly those workers who transport our precious children every day,” he said.Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.