Over the last two and a half years, supporters of Palestinian rights in Boston have mounted a BDS campaign aimed at denying a new contract to run the Massachusetts commuter rail to Veolia, one of three companies that formed the Massachusetts Bay Commuter Railroad (MBCR). With a 60 percent stake in the MBCR, Veolia has been in charge of operating and maintaining the trains since 2003.
On January 8, they tasted victory, when a contract that could be worth as much as $4.26 billion was awarded to the MBCR’s sole competitor, Keolis America, by a vote of the joint Board for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) and Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT).
During the public comment period before the Board vote, members of the groups that came together in a ‘Derail Veolia’ coalition urged the Board to be “on the right side of history,” and deny a new contract to a company that is complicit in human rights violations in the occupied West Bank and that is the target of an increasingly powerful international and national campaign. They also highlighted Veolia’s attacks on labor and a range of other practices that do not serve the public, including its role as the world’s leading water privatizer.
They further pointed out evidence of the MBCR’s poor performance over the past decade, including its record of late arrivals, chronic delays, cancellations and dark, cold coaches, a declining ridership, OSHA fines for ‘serious health and safety offenses,’ cases of double-billing, and tens of millions of dollars of additional costs to the Massachusetts taxpayers that were not in the original contract.
A representative from Veolia who addressed the Board denounced the BDS campaign. The MBCR urged the Board to delay its decision-making for at least a month, and give it the opportunity to discuss its proposal for a new contract in greater depth.
But this was not to be. The MBTA/MassDot Board decided to act immediately on a recommendation of the General Manager of the MBTA that the contract be awarded to Keolis for offering a superior proposal in terms of pricing, operations and maintenance plans. The vote to do so was unanimous. The Jewish Community Relations Council immediately claimed the vote had nothing to do with Veolia’s work in Israel or the BDS campaign.
Although we have no way of knowing whether our activity played a direct role in the Board’s decision, we have clearly raised public consciousness about Veolia’s role in the West Bank. Since mid 2011, we have given frequent testimony before state officials and the board overseeing the commuter rail, spoken at more than a dozen public meetings around the state dealing with transit issues, handed out thousands of flyers, gathered 1,200 signatures on a paper (not online) petition, and held demonstrations in support of the Palestinian ‘Freedom Rides’ and in opposition to the November 14, 2012 visit to Harvard’s Kennedy School of the Veolia Transportation CEO, Mark Joseph.
When we testified before the Board on January 8 – shortly before it announced its decision – we were joined by a supporter of Boston school bus drivers who spoke about Veolia’s refusal to honor their contract and respect their years of service after it was given the contract to run the school buses last July.
Veolia may have lost one extremely lucrative contract, but it is still a force to be reckoned with in Massachusetts, and a target for future BDS activity in the state.
Nancy Murray is a member of the Boston Coalition for Palestinian Rights which initiated the campaign. Other groups in the coalition are the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee – Massachusetts Chapter; American Friends Service Committee, Project Voice; American Jews for a Just Peace, Boston; Boston University Students for Justice in Palestine; Cambridge-Bethlehem People to People Project; Committee to Defend the School Bus Union 5; Community Church of Boston; Friends of Sabeel – New England; Grassroots International; Greater Boston Code Pink; Jewish Voice for Peace, Boston; Jewish Women for Justice in Israel/Palestine; Palestine Solidarity Committee of Harvard College; Pax Christi Boston; Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine.