City officials are taking aim at what they call a pair of “renegades’’ in the school bus drivers union, accusing them of intimidating the mostly immigrant force of drivers force into Tuesday’s wildcat strike.
Marie St. Fleur, an aide to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, declined to name the pair publicly, but at least two other city officials have said they are Steve Kirschbaum, chairman of the grievance committee for United Steelworkers Local 8751, and Steve Gillis, the local’s vice president.
“This was a group of renegades who decided to violate the terms of the contract of every driver who came to work’’ on Tuesday, St. Fleur said in an interview. “That faction has caused intimidation and created disruption in the lives of families and children of this city.”
St. Fleur said she has been speaking with drivers since the strike. She and other officials said a majority of the drivers are of Haitian, Cape Verdean and Latino descent, and many are unfamiliar with the governing processes available to get their grievances heard.
She said these drivers relied on their leaders to lead them. “Most of these drivers did not know what was going on. They showed up for work and were told they could not work.”
Kirschbaum declined to comment this afternoon. Gillis, who was meeting today with union members in Quincy, declined to respond to the assertion that he helped to intimidate the mostly immigrant workers. He shrugged, raised a hand as if brushing off a reporter, and walked away in silence.
A lawyer for the union, Alfred Gordon, said Kirschbaum and Gillis “are two elected leaders of this union who have served this union and their members for many dozens of years.” He called the city’s assertions “ill informed.”
Gordon said he had no knowledge of whether the two men had called the strike. If they did so, they were not following union procedures, he said.
Some bus drivers denied they had been intimidated, but many said they came in ready to work Tuesday morning only to learn of the planned stoppage.
“I didn’t know what was going on,’’ said Nehemy Calixte, a Boston school bus driver for nine years who works out of the Freeport Street depot in Dorchester. “I came in yesterday and they told me ‘You can’t go out. You can’t touch the bus.’ ‘’
He did not identify who told him not to drive.
Carmin Prepetit, who has been a driver for about a year, said he also came in Tuesday prepared to work.
“They said there was a strike,’’ he said. “So I went home.”
Garner Jubique, who works out of the Washington Street bus yard, echoed the sentiments of many drivers who said that they had every intention of driving Tuesday, but felt compelled not to because of their gripes against Veolia.
“They don’t respect us,’’ he said of the company. “They have so many violations. That’s why we are so angry. … It’s not a bus driving problem. It’s a company problem.”
Several striking drivers interviewed Tuesday evening at the Readville bus depot seemed universally supportive of Kirschbaum, a veteran driver and union organizer active since the 1970s.
“I’ve been in the union for 24 years, and when I first started, Steve had been there for years,” said Jean-Claude Toussaint, 57, chief steward of the Readville yard. “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 one hundred percent.”
Toussaint said Kirschbaum has earned the trust of drivers not just through his seniority and experience, but also with his extensive expertise in all things union.