T cleaning contract déjà vu all over again

Union official: Situation shows privatization doesn’t work

THE RECENT STORY about the MBTA’s plan to redo the station cleaning contract by adopting the performance-based contracting approach employed by Massport is a perfect example of why the MBTA’s pursuit of privatization creates unnecessary problems.

I can’t believe it has been almost six years since the station cleaning contract first became a huge issue. In 2013, the two cleaning companies, SJ Services and ABM, contractually had completed the initial time period of a “performance-based” contract. Under the terms of that contract, if the cleaning companies thought they could continue to clean the stations in the same fashion, they would be allowed to let some of their cleaners go.

The reduced workforce didn’t sit well with the Service Employees International Union, which held protests at the State House. Gov. Deval Patrick and Secretary of Transportation Rich Davey responded by keeping on the workers and paying for their salaries – as an addition to the contract.

There was a task force put together, which included me and several high-level MBTA executives from the engineering and maintenance department, to investigate the situation and come up with a solution for a better cleaning contract in the future.

At the time I was a sustainability specialist at the T and was concerned about the cleaning procedures and the chemicals being used. I brought in specialists from UMass Lowell’s Toxic Use Reduction Institute on a state grant to help us better understand how we could clean stations with more environmentally friendly chemicals. As it turned out, there were not only a number of processes we could use, but in certain cases they were much more effective in terms of disinfection and reducing odor.

In addition, the task force interviewed the existing cleaning companies, SEIU, other union officials, and industry experts. One of these experts suggested we follow the same cleaning approach as Massport. The representative from the Toxic Use Reduction Institute quickly pointed out that cleaning MBTA stations was much more difficult than cleaning Logan Airport or the typical office building. Regrettably, the daily cleaning issues at the T had to deal with routine defecation in elevators, train-brake dust, and old dilapidated floors and platforms. It was not just polishing shiny floors and cleaning bathrooms.

The folks at the Toxic Use Reduction Institute also said they would be willing to work with us to write a request for proposals and help with the selection process for practically no additional cost. That was the last time I had any involvement with the task force.

At that point, the engineering and maintenance department and other administrators decided to use one of the T’s general engineering contracts to hire a company to help write the request for proposals and help manage the procurement process. (General engineering contracts can be open-ended contracts that allow for projects to get done quicker in emergency situations. In most cases, they are multi-million dollar contracts.)

T officials decided to use STV Inc., a consulting company that already had a general engineering contract with the transit authority. STV dedicated two employees full-time to do the work. The only problem was, when you searched their resumes, the two employees had no experience in cleaning or worker contracts. No worry, the contract was costing the T a mere $500,000.

STV did their due diligence and, after years of kicking the can down the road, hired a consultant who recommended they use the same cleaning approach as – surprise, surprise – Massport.

Meet the Author

Timothy W. Lasker

President and business manager, OPEIU Local 453
By privatizing a critical part of facility management, the MBTA has spent six years and $500,000 in consulting to approve a $25 million “station brightening” program and set in motion a new performance-based contract procurement. The problem is, it will cost more in the long-run because they will be using equipment and procedures that are meant for modern facilities, and we all know what condition most MBTA stations are in. MBTA officials have consistently proven their inability to manage the privatization of key services. These private companies are not held accountable for poor management practices that lead to a lower level of service for the average commuter. Let’s face it, privatization does not work.

Timothy W. Lasker is the president and business manager of OPEIU Local 453, which represents unionized managers in every department at the MBTA.