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Surprise Strike Halts Boston School Bus Service

School officials said about 600 of 700 unionized drivers unexpectedly went on strike , leaving just 30 of 650 bus routes staffed. Pictured here, Boston school buses sit idle Tuesday morning at Veolia Transportation, the city's school bus contractor. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

School officials said about 600 of 700 unionized drivers unexpectedly went on strike, leaving just 30 of 650 bus routes staffed. Pictured here, Boston school buses sit idle Tuesday morning at Veolia Transportation, the city’s school bus contractor. (Stephan Savoia/AP)

BOSTON — A federal judge on Tuesday evening turned down a request to force striking Boston school bus drivers back to work.

Veolia Transportation Inc., the company that operates the buses, had sought a temporary restraining order against the drivers’ union. But an attorney for the United Steelworkers local argued an injunction against the union wasn’t appropriate because he said “rogue” employees initiated Tuesday’s surprise walkout and the union has asked them to return to work.

An attorney for Veolia said it strains credibility to believe that the union isn’t behind the near-universal work stoppage.

But a federal judge sided with the union, saying an injunction wasn’t appropriate now.

Following the judge’s decision, an “extremely angry” Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said it remained unclear whether the bus drivers will return to work Wednesday morning.

Menino said parents should make other arrangements to get their children to school, and said schools will open one hour early Wednesday to accommodate their drop-off.

Earlier in the day, at a separate news conference, Menino said the strike was brought on by drivers who “agreed to a contract and now … don’t want to live up to that contract” and that he would not allow the drivers to “use our students as pawns.”

According to Boston Public Schools spokesman Lee McGuire, the walkout was prompted, in part, by union members’ opposition to a GPS system that allows parents to track buses online in real time. McGuire said the drivers also oppose changes that school officials say will ensure driver safety and improve on-time performance.

“This company, they have no respect. There’s been suspended drivers. There is a lot of rules,” Tony Depina, a driver who refused to work Tuesday, told WBUR.

The city said about 600 of 700 drivers who work for Veolia walked off the job Tuesday morning, leaving just 30 of 650 morning bus routes staffed.

About 33,000 students were affected by Tuesday’s walkout. Police officers fanned out to bus stops in the morning to inform families and in some cases actually gave kids rides to school. The MBTA also offered free rides to students with Boston school IDs.

The city said Tuesday evening that about 82 percent of students made it to school. That’s about 10 percent below normal attendance.

But many parents were frustrated. Stephen Pray, of Dorchester, had to drive his two sons to Condon Elementary School in South Boston Tuesday. He called the walkout outrageous.

“It’s not all about them [the drivers],” he said. “You know, I understand they’re a union, they gotta get paid, but this is more important. Not a paycheck.”

Both mayoral candidates — City Councilor John Connolly and state Rep. Martin Walsh — also denounced the strike in separate appearances Tuesday.

With reporting by the Associated Press and the WBUR Newsroom

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