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Boston school bus drivers end wildcat strike, but city officials wary (+video)

After school bus service resumed Wednesday in Boston, drivers' representatives met with company officials to air grievances, including the use of electronic tracking devices on the buses.

By Contributor / October 9, 2013

Boston school buses sat idle behind a chain link fence at Veolia Transportation, the city's school bus contractor, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013. About 600 school bus drivers went on strike affecting most of the school district's 33,000 students.

Stephan Savoia/ AP Photo

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Boston school buses were rolling again Wednesday morning – a day after a wildcat strike by drivers – but interruptions in school transportation remain a possibility as negotiations between the drivers' union and the city-contracted bus company continue, city officials warned

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Katherine Jacobsen writes for the Monitor's international desk. 

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Wary city officials in Boston said Wednesday they're hoping school bus drivers who staged a surprise strike this week won't leave students stranded again, but they can't offer any guarantees.

"We're still concerned about a similar action at any time, and we're keeping our contingency plans in place," said a Boston Public Schools spokesman, the Associated Press reported. 

Union leaders met Wednesday with officials from the Veolia bus company to discuss their grievances. The meeting was held on condition that drivers complete their normal rounds Wednesday morning and that union members who participated in Tuesday’s strike not be punished for their actions.

Topping a 16-point list of union demands presented to Veolia was a halt to the bus company's use of two new electronic tracking systems: a GPS device that allows parents to monitor bus location through an app on their smartphones, and Versatrans, a software program that helps route buses and is used by the company to determine evaluations and pay. 

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino called Wednesday’s meeting “very good news," but cautioned parents to have backup transportation plans, The Boston Globe reported. This was a change in tone from Tuesday, when Mayor Menino expressed his outrage at the strike and said he would use all available legal means to resume service and hold the strikers accountable.

Brian Ballou, the Boston schools spokesman, said officials heard rumblings about the strike Monday, and had placed monitors at bus yards Tuesday morning, the Globe reported. School officials heard about the strike shortly after 5 a.m. on Tuesday, and alerted parents shortly thereafter.

The school department said student attendance on Tuesday fell to 82 percent, about 10 percent lower than usual. The city enlisted the help of police officers to shuttle students to school, and children over the age of 11 were offered free rides on public transportation. 

Bus company representatives agreed Tuesday evening to meet with the drivers only after Federal District Court Judge George O’Toole refused to issue an injunction ordering them back to work. 

Union steward Jean Claude Toussaint said drivers staged the “work stoppage” to bring attention to a list of grievances. However, Patrick Bryan, an attorney for the United Steelworkers Local 8751, which represents the bus drivers’ interests, said union leadership did not authorize a strike. Rather, Mr. Bryan said, Tuesday’s action was organized by disparate union members. 

Veolia's attorneys were reluctant to accept that the union was unaware that hundreds of its members were going on strike. 

"This was beyond the actions of a few rogue members," Veolia attorney Paul Hodnett told the AP. 

Boston Public Schools awarded Veolia a five-year contract in March 2013 after a contract with First Student transportation company ended. In December 2011, First Student was fined $800,000 after 37 percent of its buses arrived as much as an hour late to school in the preceding months, the Globe reported. The school district did not say directly that bus tardiness was the reason it did not renew the contract with First Student. 

Tuesday's school bus strike was the first in Boston in more than 20 years, the Globe reported. 

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