This story has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster. A bunch of average ordinary Americans who formed a coalition of social-justice and environmental activism, including civil rights leaders, workers and students, in a large midwestern city, just scored a massive victory over the takeover of their water department and the privatization of their resources by an international corporate behemoth deeply embedded in human rights violations.
In a dramatic conclusion to nearly one year of effort and vigilance by the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) and coalition partners, the St. Louis mayor’s office announced on October 29, 2013 that Veolia Water North America was withdrawing itself from consideration for a contract to consult with the St. Louis Water Division. Veolia is a major, global target of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement because of its complicity in Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights. Veolia profits from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank by providing services, such as trash collection, water services and, until recently, bus lines, to illegal Israeli settlements built on Palestinian land.
When the contract came to light, the PSC helped form a local coalition to “Dump Veolia.” The Coalition included a wide spectrum of the St. Louis community, as well as national organizations. The broad based opposition caused Veolia to withdraw from our city, reportedly deciding St. Louis “is not worth it. It is not worth the damage to [Veolia’s] business.”
The St. Louis Dump Veolia campaign shows the effectiveness of local BDS campaigns. The efforts against the Veolia contract brought Palestine to the St. Louis mayoral campaign last spring as the two leading candidates — the incumbent, Mayor Francis Slay, and his challenger and the head of the Board of Alderman (St. Louis’ equivalent to a city council), Lewis Reed — staked out opposite sides in the Veolia debate. Mayor Slay, a proponent of the Veolia contract, was forced to admit in a press release in February that Palestinians find Veolia’s involvement with Israel’s occupation objectionable.
The issue of the proposed Veolia water contract was the top requested question at the second mayoral debate. St. Louis Public Radio and the St. Louis Beacon covered the issue as part of their debate coverage. Palestine activists bird-dogged Mayor Slay during a fundraising event demanding answers on why he supported human rights violations in Palestine through his advocacy for Veolia. Anti-Veolia flyers sponsored by candidate Reed and his supporters in the St. Louis Carpenters’ Union were mailed to every household in St. Louis during the campaign. Global Water Intelligence credited BDS in St. Louis with thwarting Veolia’s ambitions for securing public sector work in the United States.
While Mayor Slay handily won the mayoral election, the Dump Veolia campaign put his office and Veolia on the defensive and forced both to expend considerable political clout and resources. In June, a public hearing on the Veolia contract was called by the Board of Alderman Public Utilities Committee. Over two sessions, the hearing lasted six hours. At the second session, well over 150 concerned citizens attended to voice their opposition to the proposed contract. The only testimonies in support of the contract were from either Veolia representatives or others who would directly benefit as a subcontractor from the proposed deal. The only pro-Israel opposition to our efforts came in the form of a statement from the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council that did not support Veolia — a seemingly untenable position — but asked the City to not factor BDS demands into their decision-making process.
At the hearing, several PSC members made statements focusing on Veolia’s operation of bus lines on segregated roads in the West Bank, drawing comparisons to St. Louis’ racist practices and to the Board of Aldermen’s strong stance against Apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. Veolia representatives were flustered by the testimony about the segregated buses and attempted to deny the allegations. However, PSC testimony had been heard, and it was members of the Board of Aldermen who refuted the Veolia spokesperson’s inadequate defense. In September, Veolia Transdev sold off all bus lines operating in Palestine/Israel, showing the power of BDS.
For more than three years, Veolia attempted to secure a contract with St. Louis, defying the will of the local community through aggressive lobbying, bullying, political interference, back-door deals, and outright contempt for democratic involvement. When public opposition denied Veolia the necessary votes to pass the contract through normal channels, the mayor attempted to circumvent the democratic checks and balances by claiming the contract did not need approval through traditional means and threatened to sue the city comptroller if she did not sign it.
However, public outrage overwhelmed the St. Louis Board of Aldermen who introduced a resolution to remove funds allocated for Veolia in the city’s budget — the straw that finally broke the camel’s back, prompting Veolia to withdraw. The proposed Board Bill 216 may be the first city resolution in North America targeting Veolia in response to a BDS campaign.
As the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee celebrates this victory over occupation profiteer Veolia, we wish to thank the many coalition partners and St. Louis citizens who supported the Dump Veolia campaign. While we came to this issue because of Palestine, we soon learned of the many troubling aspects of Veolia’s business practices including privatization of public resources, labor abuses, corruption, environmental degradation and interference in democratic processes. This is a huge win for BDS in North America and a triumph for the people of St. Louis.
On December 3, 2012, nobody but a small group of St. Louis insiders knew anything about the proposed St. Louis water consultancy contract with Veolia Water North America. On December 4, the story broke in the Riverfront Times following a leak from a water department worker. Thanks to the journalistic diligence of reporter Jessica Lussenhop and massive mobilization efforts by St. Louisans passionate about the environment and rights, the contract and campaign to stop it went on to capture headlines and garner significant media attention locally as well as some coverage nationally and internationally.
A true success story.