By Stephen Grigelevich
July 12, 2021
“It’s been amongst our conversations in the labor movement this week.” Steve Gillis has a short, gray beard, a deep, cool voice, and is a self-described rambler. He’s talking about the recent decision of Boston’s Pavement Coffeehouse workers to become the first unionized café in Massachusetts. We’re sitting in a room at the Painters and Allied Trades District Council 35, a union hall in Roslindale. Steve has a bunch of audio equipment spread out for an event he’s doing later on. There’s a meeting outside in the parking lot, where a bunch of guys are laughing and talking shop. Gillis himself is a Boston school bus driver of 36 years, and is the former president and current finance director of Local 8751, the Boston school bus drivers’ union. “The city of Boston was forced to create my job,” says Gillis. “For the first 20 years, people threw rocks and sticks at us in the street. We wore crash helmets.” Gillis is referring to federal Judge Garrity’s 1974 decision to integrate Boston’s public schools, and the largely racist backlash that ensued. Gillis is just as frank about the problems that have arisen between Boston school bus drivers and their employer, Transdev. Gillis says Transdev was given the mission to break up the union, and he anticipates that his union will strike this year due to possible wage freezes and increases in health insurance premiums.
We soon return to the Pavement conversation. Gillis likens his early days as a bus driver to taking a coffee house job nowadays. “[Bus driving] was full of photographers and artists. It was a minimum wage, no bathroom in the parking lot, kind of job. And it developed into a fairly powerful union of around a thousand people with the best wages and benefits of any school bus drivers in the country that we know of.” He believes the pandemic has opened the eyes of many to unfair labor practices, and we should all be pushing to collectively bargain with our employers. “There isn't a shortage of workers,” he says. “People are refusing to go back to this shit.” His comments affirm the position of the Pavement workers organizing committee, who claim that unsafe and unjust working conditions during the pandemic are partly behind their decision to organize.
When asked for organizing advice, Gillis says “don’t be afraid to talk to people at work. Form a committee at your workplace to start talking about conditions. That way you build trust among each other.” Meanwhile, as of the writing of this article, Pavement founder Larry Margulies has stated that he will recognize and work with the Pavement workers’ union, and talks should be taking place over the summer. Tune in next month for more Boston area labor news!