Palestine activists, labor and environment groups in US unite against Veolia

4 March 2014

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Activists from Boston Jewish Voice for Peace protest outside a Harvard Kennedy School lecture by Veolia chief executive Mark Joseph on 14 November 2012. (Tess Scheflan / ActiveStills)

On 18 November 2012, Thomas Hock, the vice president of labor relations for Veolia Transportation, checked into the Marriott Hotel in downtown Oakland, California, for a three-night stay in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A month earlier, BART — the Bay Area Rapid Transit rail system — had quietly hired Hock as a labor consultant in preparation for the impending contract negotiations between BART and its employees.

By the end of his short visit, Hock had billed $7,000 in consulting fees at $350 an hour — and that was just the beginning.

Following his first November visit, Hock would make an additional seven trips to the Bay Area, racking up $83,000 in fees and expenses, before being hired under contract to serve as the chief negotiator beginning on 1 April 2013.

At the time, BART spokespersons tried to downplay their hire, but the public agency’s hefty investment in Hock’s services indicated their anticipation of the unions’ insistent bargain demands at the negotiating table (“What’s behind the BART strike?,” Mother Jones, 1 July 2013).

In 2009, when BART was floundering with a sizable deficit induced by the 2008 financial crisis, BART employees had gracefully agreed to $100 million in cuts.

But, over the course of the next three years BART would regain a surplus, while the rise in the cost of living in the Bay Area outpaced the rest of California.

The unions knew it was time for the workers to get a raise, and Hock was BART’s weapon. BART set aside a maximum of $399,000 for Hock’s services — half of which was used up within the first two months of the negotiations (“Ohio transit attorney eating through BART tab for ongoing labor negotiations,” San Francisco Examiner, 1 October 2013).

“Hired gun”

“Hock is a man that has grown very rich working as a hired gun to disrupt contract negotiation to force unions out on strike,” Lawrence Hanley, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), told The Electronic Intifada.

Between April and December 2013, local chapters of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and ATU held two strikes before reaching an agreement.

The alliance between Veolia and BART was part of a pattern being produced across the country. Cities, counties and states contract with Veolia to run public transportation, waste or water services with the promise of reducing costs — usually on the backs of the workers.

Complicity

As has been extensively documented by The Electronic Intifada, the French corporation Veolia Environment and its subsidiary Veolia Transdev has acted in complicity with Israel’s occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.

While the company sold its operations of the Modiin bus line in July 2013, it continues to maintain Israel’s Tovlan landfill in the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank.

In direct violation of international law, Israel transfers its own waste to this landfill, which is situated on occupied land.

Veolia also holds a share of CityPass, the company contracted to operate the Jerusalem Light Rail project, which connects western Jerusalem to the surrounding illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank.

Veolia also owns 80 percent of Connex Jerusalem, the company tasked with running the trains of the project (“Veolia Transportation Israel stopped operating the Modiin bus network,” Who Profits?, August 2013).

Nurturing acrimony

But as the company stretches its corporate tentacles from its home-base in France into Palestine, San Francisco, Bangladesh and various European countries, it is aiding in the expansion of its own opposition.

Whether by polluting local water, cutting the pensions and slashing the pay of transport workers, or helping to run Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Veolia nurtures acrimonious relationships with local populations, labor and trade unions and other activists.

Until his splashy deal with BART last year, Hock’s — and for that matter, Veolia’s — public reputation was minimal in the US beyond those informed about its transgressions in Palestine.

But anger and frustration with the company has been mounting, particularly over its labor and environmental records.

A year prior to the BART troubles in the Bay Area, Thomas Hock had helped drag out a long negotiation process with transit unions in Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona — provoking a federal intervention before the National Labor Relations Board, which found that Veolia had engaged in “regressive, bad faith, and surface bargaining” (“BART’s lead negotiator has a history of illegal behavior,” East Bay Express, 10 July 2013).

And currently in Boston, Massachusetts, public school bus drivers are waging an ardent battle to keep their jobs, pay and benefits after the city sold its public school buses to Veolia Transportation last year.

In 1999, Hock founded Professional Transit Management (PTM), a transit labor consulting firm which was acquired by Veolia Transportation in 2008.

Since 2001, PTM has incurred 51 complaints before the National Labor Relations Board, charging Hock’s and Veolia’s firm of stalling the negotiation process, spying on employees, punitively firing outspoken employees and bargaining in bad faith.

Tarred image

Now, Hock and Veolia have become synonymous with union-busting — and the company’s tarred image is proving to be a boost for campaigners calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

The need for support through coalition-building with labor, environment and other social justice activists has long been recognized as vital for the BDS movement to grow and strengthen its ability to achieve victories.

Nancy Murray is a longtime Palestine solidarity activist based in Boston. For some time, the greater Boston area’s commuter rail system has been operated by an amalgam of three companies, known as Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail (MBCR), the majority shareholder — 60 percent — being Veolia.

In 2011, Murray’s group, the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights, decided to mobilize against the continuation of this contract — worth over $4 billion — slated to be renewed at the beginning of 2014.

“When we started this, I didn’t think we were going to get very far,” Murray told The Electronic Intifada. She explained that Veolia had a stronghold on the contract with no competition.

Furthermore, Murray explained, “Massachusetts has a very well-organized anti-Palestinian rights movement.”

The anti-Muslim and pro-Israel Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) is based in Boston; and when Murray called for divestment from Israel bonds it triggered a counter-campaign urging residents to buy more of them.

“So we had to play this a little carefully. It was clear that if we just focused on the human rights violations of Veolia in Palestine there would be a huge counter-movement in Massachusetts,” she said.

History of malfeasance

So the campaigners broadened their critique of Veolia, reached out to a variety of interest groups and forged a multifaceted argument against the state contracting with the company.

For example, they brought attention to the company’s history of malfeasance: a 2011 state audit that found MBCR had double-billed the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) (“T payments to contractor challenged,” The Boston Globe, 19 January 2011).

They also drew attention to how the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration had fined Veolia $130,000 for 22 “serious health and safety offenses” at its Massachusetts maintenance facility in November 2011.

“We did focus on Palestine at times,” explained Murray. She helped organize a solidarity bus ride with the Palestinian “Freedom Riders” who protested the Jewish-only buses that Veolia operated in the West Bank in 2011.

And in late 2012, the group demonstrated outside Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government when Mark Joseph, Veolia Transportation’s chief executive officer, delivered a lecture on transportation.

During the process of educating the community about the vast canvas of Veolia’s misconduct, Murray’s group included information about Veolia’s nefarious conduct in Palestine.

“We weren’t sneaking it in; it retained prominence in our campaign,” she said. “But, in terms of the way we talked about it to the public, it was all of these other issues that really gave us a leg to stand on.”

On 8 January this year, the MBTA ditched Veolia’s Massachusetts Bay Commuter Rail contract (“Veolia, a BDS target, loses Massachusetts commuter rail contract,” Mondoweiss, 9 January 2014).

“We don’t take credit — we don’t say we got the contract taken away. Because while we were significant, we were never cited specifically,” Murray said.

Spearheading opposition

Only a few months earlier in another part of the country, the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee had successfully prevented their city from contracting with Veolia Water to provide “cost-saving” consulting services to the municipal water department.

Sandra Tamari, a member of the St. Louis group, told The Electronic Intifada that while it was longtime Palestine solidarity activists who spearheaded the opposition to the contract, the success of her city’s campaign was due to their appeal to local concerns.

“If we’d only focused on Palestine we would not have been able to build those coalitions. We want to find companies that are complicit in all kinds of problematic activities and violations,” she noted.

News of the imminent city contract with Veolia first appeared in the local paper, the River Front Times, which reported that the contract had sparked anxiety within the department.

One anonymous insider told the paper that fears of layoffs swamped the office as the threat of privatization loomed (“French firm Veolia wins consulting contract with St. Louis water division,” 4 December 2012).

Like many cities privatizing traditionally public services, St. Louis had argued that efficiencies were needed amid a budgetary crisis. And while the contract with St. Louis was not a full-scale privatization scheme, it did expect Veolia to implement cost-saving measures.

Tamari’s group, already poised to target Veolia, quickly mobilized its members and convinced the city to postpone a vote on the contract until there could be a more extensive investigation into the company’s shoddy environmental record.

Abysmal record

Over the next ten months, the voices opposing the contract amplified and diversified to include the Missouri Coalition for the Environment and the Boston-based group Corporate Accountability International.

Furthermore, the Washington-based non-profit organization Food and Water Watch provided substantial research demonstrating Veolia’s abysmal record managing water supplies.

Among the issues highlighted were that Veolia had owned and operated Indianapolis’ water department until the company was sued for unfairly hiking rates. In addition, the US Attorney began an investigation into the safety of the drinking water, and the city had to buy Veolia out of its contract.

And, in 2008, watchdog group the San Francisco Baykeeper sued Veolia for dumping 10 million gallons of sewage into the San Francisco Bay from its Burlingame city sewer treatment plant (“Money down the drain,” Food and Water Watch, February 2009 [PDF]).

Broad alliance

On whether the subject of Palestine is at risk of getting diluted through coalition-building, Tamari and Murray emphasize that it has the opposite effect. Coalition-building creates a broad audience which can receive the BDS message.

“When you’re talking about a local issue it’s okay to not be as forceful about international concerns. We made a very conscious choice to focus on the common goal: to dump Veolia. And we’re all committed not to undermine anyone’s focus,” said Tamari.

“Being pro-Veolia wasn’t an option for anybody,” she added.

In October 2013, Veolia withdrew from its $250,000 contract with the St. Louis water department (“Veolia Water withdraws from contract with city of St. Louis,” Riverfront Times, 29 October 2013) .

As it promised in St. Louis, Veolia has been hawking its services to municipalities by arguing that private companies are good at saving money.

In its contract in Boston to run the public school buses, Veolia was given strong incentives to reduce labor costs: the company receives up to 50 cents of every dollar it saves through “efficiencies or cost-saving” measures.

Some of those early “efficiencies” came through the company’s “Intelliride” technology, which uses computer software to determine the best travel routes and how much time each route should take.

Intransigence

“Right off the bat, they didn’t want to do even the simple things,” bus driver Steven Gillis told The Electronic Intifada. Gillis has been driving Boston’s children since 1985.

After getting a taste of Veolia’s intransigence, Gillis and his union began digging into the company’s contract with the city. They discovered that Intelliride and the new pay system resulted in drivers not getting the full pay owed to them.

“I had never really heard of Veolia until last July,” Gillis said. Last November he, along with three other long-time bus drivers, were fired by Veolia after they led a protest the previous month.

At about the same time, Murray’s anti-Veolia campaign was gaining traction. “We discovered recent action in the Boston area by the Palestinian self-determination movement,” Gillis said. “Veolia really brings people together.”

That was the theme of a day-long conference held in San Francisco in February this year. Endorsed by nearly twenty different groups, including trade unions, Food and Water Watch, and Palestine solidarity groups, the conference, “Stop Privatization, Defend Labor, Human Rights and the Environment,” was introduced as “the first time that there’s been a conference tying together the struggle of labor, human rights and the environment with the company Veolia.”

The day reflected the breadth of alliances the BDS campaign has built since its launch in 2005.

At the conference, Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), spoke via Skype from Ramallah in the West Bank.

“Successes against Veolia have been on issues where struggles converge,” he said.

Barghouti emphasized the important alliance that the BDS movement has forged with trade unions around the world, beginning in South Africa and growing to include trade unions in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Brazil, France, Italy and Canada.

Barghouti remarked that since the first victory against Veolia in the Basque city of Bilbao in November 2008, successful BDS campaigning has cost the company billions in lost business.

The human rights organization Global Exchange maintains a full list of BDS victories around the world that have cost Veolia a total of $23.97 billion in contracts.

Echoing Gillis’ sentiment, Barghouti told the audience, “It’s not difficult to organize mass anger against Veolia.”

“Proud” to serve apartheid

Indeed, the strength of BDS and coalition-building can be detected in Veolia’s responses.

While Veolia has shown signs of wishing to abandon its contract with the Jerusalem Light Rail — which continues to haunt the company in its ventures in North America and Europe — it has nevertheless adopted an offensive tactic to combat the local alliances forged against it.

In a letter sent to the Boston bus drivers on 25 November 2013 and seen by The Electronic Intifada, Alex Roman, a general manager with Veolia, wrote: “BDS is part of an international movement dedicated to attacking the nation of Israel and anyone … that does business in or with Israel in the disputed territories of Palestine. This group’s goal, according to its international leader, is the ‘euthanization of Israel’ and they have no problem with lies and distorting the truth.”

Roman added: “We are falsely attacked by BDS because a subsidiary of our parent company helps operate a highly popular and successful modern light rail system in the ancient and diverse city of Jerusalem … It’s very popular in the Palestinian Arab neighborhoods it serves and we are proud to be part of operating it.”

The Electronic Intifada reported last year that Alan Moldawer, Veolia Transportation’s executive vice president, sent a very similar statement to the local government in Sonoma County, California, in response to a campaign aimed at ending a Veolia contract to run buses there.

But despite Veolia’s attempts to wedge divides between the multiple groups that hold grievances against the company, the success stories of Murray and Tamari, and the ongoing struggle of transportation workers like Gillis, demonstrate that the global movement to resist Veolia will continue to be powerfully effective when targeting the company on the local level.

Charlotte Silver is a journalist based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @CharESilver.