United Steelworkers Local 8751, which represents about 700 Boston school bus drivers, is a throwback. Labor leaders in Boston are trying to keep the union from becoming extinct. But it will be hard to dredge up any sympathy from Bostonians. Nothing short of mass amnesia is likely to blot out the public’s memory of last October’s wildcat strike, which left thousands of children stranded on city sidewalks.
On Monday, about 200 drivers and their supporters protested at the Dorchester headquarters of Veolia Transportation, the contractor responsible for transporting 33,000 Boston students to and from school. The union is furious that Veolia fired five of its leaders after last fall’s illegal strike. Protesters demanded their reinstatement.
But the fired workers, it turns out, haven’t gone very far. Some of them, including firebrand Steve Kirschbaum, played significant roles in orchestrating this week’s protest, which coincided with the expiration of the collective bargaining contract between Veolia and the drivers.
Local 8751 has a special way of endearing itself to the city’s taxpayers. On Thursday, Boston Police filed a complaint against Kirschbaum in Dorchester District Court for allegedly breaking into Veolia headquarters during the demonstration and assaulting an employee with a dangerous weapon. For some ungodly reason, Kirschbaum remains a member of the union’s negotiating team.
School officials, meanwhile, are busy trimming the roughly $100 million school transportation budget. Come fall, middle-school students will receive MBTA passes instead of service on yellow buses. The union has denounced the move as a “racist” attack on Boston’s schoolchildren. Actually, it’s a sensible plan that would allow the city to redirect about $8 million into classroom improvements.
There may be legitimate issues on the collective bargaining table, including hourly wages, health insurance premiums, pay periods, and leaves of absence. Drivers, who earn on average about $43,000 annually, deserve a fair wage and decent benefits. But it was galling to listen to speaker after speaker at the demonstration argue that Kirschbaum and the other fired workers were the real victims, not the pupils abandoned on the streets in October.
Back then, the United Steelworkers called on its local to “immediately cease this strike.” But at Monday’s demonstration, the Steelworkers were peddling a pathetic story that it wasn’t really a strike after all. Richard Rogers, executive secretary of the AFL-CIO-affiliated Greater Boston Labor Council, derided Veolia as a French firm intent on “union busting.” He assured the protesting drivers that Steven Tolman, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, is “100 percent behind your struggle.” But somehow Tolman seems to be out of town whenever this marginal union mounts a demonstration. Good judgment on his part.
Summer school starts on Monday. Parents of Boston school kids should be on alert. The bus drivers’ expired contract prohibited strikes. Now, with no agreement in place, the drivers could strike without warning or consequences.
Before he left office, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg scrapped a provision that requires new bidders for school bus contracts to choose from a list of current drivers based on seniority and union pay scale. That’s food for thought. Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he wouldn’t entertain such a notion. He’s as labor-friendly a mayor as they come. But even Walsh sees red when it comes to Local 8751.
“I have major concerns about leaving kids on the sidewalks,” he said.
Walsh, who headed the city’s unionized building trades before his election, said it is important for unions to “adapt and change.” Those that do, he said, are on the upswing. A case in point is Unite Here Local 26, which represents housekeepers, banquet servers, and other service personnel in 29 hotels in Boston and Cambridge. That’s up from just 12 hotels a decade ago. The union has added about 1,000 new members in Boston since 2011, according to Local 26 president Brian Lang. He attributed some of the union’s success to its willingness to adapt to changes in the hospitality industry and show flexibility around union work rules.
How about a little flexibility on the part of the bus drivers’ union? Instead of filing dozens of grievances, coddling its lunatic fringe, and ranting about injustices in far-off lands, perhaps the union could see its way to extend and honor the no-strike clause in the expired contract during negotiations on a new contract. Such a courtesy would relieve Boston parents from worrying that their children might be abandoned on the city’s street corners. And Local 8751, for the first time in recent memory, might actually appear levelheaded.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at email@example.com.