Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Boston Union Beats Back Concessions

By Gerry Scoppettuolo & Stevan Kirschbaum

“We don’t go to retirement parties. We go to funerals!” shouted Steelworkers Local 8751 Vice President Steve Gillis as he rallied more than 500 members of the Boston School Bus Drivers Union and their supporters in Boston Teachers Union Hall on Aug. 24. The occasion was the Community/Student/Labor Solidarity Rally, part of the union’s Fight for Retirement with Dignity and Contract Justice. The crowd roared its agreement — because without retirement benefits, bus drivers can’t afford to leave the job and retire. Union organizers point out that after decades of service, the company “throws them to the curb like a used tire.”

By the time the standing-room-only meeting was over two hours later, it was clear the drivers — Haitian, African-American, Latino/a and white — had united as a mighty unstoppable force and were ready to force many concessions demanded by First Student Corporation off the bargaining table.

The workers took the strength of the rally directly into round-the-clock negotiating sessions with the company, and turned the Aug. 25-26 “bid” for fall bus route assignments into a two-day rally for retirement dignity and a fair contract.

The Bus Drivers are reviving the labor culture of fightback, beating back company demands for vicious concessions and demanding progress and economic justice at a time when unions are under attack.

The union is fighting for retirement benefits to allow older members to retire with dignity. A majority of the membership is over 50. Currently bus drivers are the only school workers who receive no pension and lose all benefits, including those for health and life insurance, when they leave the job. Recently a worker retired after decades on the job and died a few weeks later. Because all health and life insurance was discontinued on the day he left the job, his family didn’t even have sufficient funds to cover the cost of burial.

The union is demanding a company match to the pension fund (so it contributes the same amount as the drivers), a lump-sum-appreciation payment, and continued health and life insurance at time of retirement. A high point of the rally was a salute to a large group of veteran drivers over 65, led by Bob Traynham, 74; Naomi Miller, 81; and Charlie Hoy, 71.

For decades, the Bus Drivers union has been a beacon of militant unionism and the fight for civil rights, opposing racist school segregation in Boston and supporting every peoples’ campaign for justice and against war.

Richard Stutman, Boston Teachers Union president, welcomed the drivers to the hall and pledged the teachers’ aid in the struggle. Boston City Councilor Charles Yancey told the assembly, “You are under attack. Make no mistake about it. Today the Council passed a resolution of support for the Verizon workers, and there needs to be one for you, too!” A benediction was delivered by Bishop Philip Teixiera OFSC, Diocese of St. Francis of Assisi.

Taking a stand ‘for our children & all workers’

One of many emotional peaks during the rally was when Myles Calvey, business agent of the Verizon workers in International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2222, brought a delegation of union workers who were recently on strike against the communications giant. “We are there for you!” Calvey shouted to the crowd. “They will push us into the ocean if we let them! We have to take a stand for our children and for all workers!”

The bus drivers had expressed solidarity with these fellow union members by walking the Verizon picket lines during the strike. Calvey acknowledged the long-standing solidarity between the two unions going all the way back to the Verizon strike of 1989, when BSBD members were arrested on the Local 2222 picket line.

Boston City Councilors Felix Arroyo and Tito Jackson offered their support. Arroyo, the son of long-time City Councilor Felix Arroyo Sr., is a recent union organizer with the Service Employees union, while Jackson’s father, Herbert Jackson, was a founder of the Greater Roxbury Workers Association.

Solidarity speakers included Sandra McIntosh of the Coalition for Equal Quality Education; Jose Lopez, Teachers Activist Group; Myia X, youth leader of the Women’s Fightback Network, SistaCipher and Politicin with the Sistas; Darrin Howell, MassUniting; Frantz Dry, Fanmi Lavalas; Frank Neisser, Bail Out the People Movement; representatives from the Greater Boston Labor Council, Mass AFL-CIO and more.

This rally, like the 100 percent shutdown of the “bid” for assignment of summer school routes on June 25, demonstrated the truly historic level of unity of the Boston School Bus Drivers Union.

The rally was a kick-off to a broad, citywide campaign for retirement with dignity. The union members plan to let First Student, the School Department and Mayor Thomas Menino know they demand respect — now! There will be City Council resolutions and hearings, press and media work, and extensive outreach to parents, students, people of faith and the entire Boston community. Materials will include literature, stickers, posters and buttons. An online petition is being prepared demanding “Retirement with Dignity NOW!”

For more information and to read the latest union bulletin, go to www.bostonschoolbusunion.org/

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