By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - Boston Mayor Thomas Menino vowed to punish school bus drivers who walked off the job on Tuesday in a labor action the city contended was illegal, and which even the drivers' union organization condemned.
Some 33,000 public and private school students were left to find alternative routes to and from school on Tuesday after a union representing some 700 drivers and also represented by the United Steelworkers of America Local 8751 did not show up for work.
"We will make sure this illegal behavior has consequences," Menino told reporters, saying the strike violated the terms of the contract under which the drivers worked.
The driver union's parent organization also noted the walkout was a violation.
"The USW does not condone the current action, or any violation of our collective bargaining agreement, and has instructed all members of Local 8751 to immediately cease this strike," the union said in a statement.
Officials at Local 8751 did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment.
Video of drivers outside the bus lot showed them angrily shouting down union officials who came to ask them to return to work.
The company that holds the bussing concession, Veolia Transportation Services, filed papers in U.S. District Court in Boston on Tuesday asking a judge to issue an injunction to order the workers back behind the wheel.
"An injunction against the wildcat strike is in the public interest, and is required as a matter of law in order to prevent a violation of the no-strike clause of the collective bargaining agreement," said a filing by Veolia, a unit of France's Veolia Environnement.
The Boston Public Schools system said in a statement posted on its website that it believed drivers were protesting new bus programs, including an online tool that allows families to track buses' locations in real time.
Menino ordered city police to help children get to school, and the city opened its public transportation for free to all students with school identification. The two candidates vying to succeed Menino also criticized the move, which came as a surprise to city officials.
Just 30 of the 650 buses that transport students to public and private schools were on the road, school officials said, adding that students would not be penalized for arriving late or being absent as a result of the strike.
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Jeffrey Benkoe, Nick Zieminski, Bernard Orr and Chris Reese)