Kennedy lauds T union fight against privatization

Says conditions at Quincy bus repair garage are bad

US REP.  JOE KENNEDY III joined MBTA union workers on Sunday at a bus repair garage in Quincy to protest the transit authority’s consideration of a plan to outsource the operation and maintenance of 60 new buses to a private vendor.

Union officials cast the privatization fight as an us-versus-them battle with Gov. Charlie Baker and MBTA management, but Kennedy portrayed the situation in much broader terms.

“What it’s really about is do we think people who actually build the city and make it run deserve to live here, too?” he asked, standing outside the Quincy garage on Hancock Street. “That’s what this is about.”

In his Democratic primary race against US Sen. Ed Markey, Kennedy said he has held 13 town halls around the state in the last month and the two things he is asked about wherever he goes is the cost of housing and transportation. He said housing costs keep going up, particularly in the city, and people keep moving farther and farther out to find affordable housing. As they do, he said, they find themselves with longer and longer commutes to get to work. He said the anti-privatization fight with the T is about improving service with union-paid workers.

The T Carmen’s Union, which represents bus drivers, and the machinists union, which represents bus mechanics, both signed contracts that protected their existing jobs but allowed the T to experiment with outside vendors whenever service is expanded. MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said the contract terms clearly allow the T to explore private vendors for operating the 60 new buses, but union officials said the transit authority should not do that. At a recent meeting of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, they rallied a number of state lawmakers to their cause.

“We consider this an attack on labor and the riding public doesn’t deserve this,” said Jim Evers, the head of the Carmen’s Union,

Mike Vartabedian, business agent for the machinists union, said the T shouldn’t even think about privatization until it fulfills another contract provision calling on the T to invest $25 million a year in upgrading the existing T garages. T officials have acknowledged they dropped the ball on that pledge and are trying to get back on track.

“Why again are we looking at a private vendor?” Vartabedian asked the workers in Quincy. “I’ll tell you why, because it’s an ideology. How can a private company make a profit on a public service that’s not designed to make a profit. The answer is very simple. They cut corners. They take from the workers and then they destroy the system.”

He cited the example of a previous privatization experiment where the T provided six new buses to a vendor to provide service in Winthrop. Vartabedian said two of the six buses have been out of commission for nearly two months. He said T officials are trying to get the buses repaired under warranties, but he blamed a large part of the problem on poor maintenance work. He said he personally looked at one of the buses, and saw a severed wiring harness put back together with super glue. “Stuff that you just wouldn’t even imagine – horrible, horrible, horrible work,” he said.

Mike Vartbedian of the T machinists union at an anti-privatization rally with US Rep. Joe Kennedy III. (Photo by Bruce Mohl)

Vartabedian took Kennedy on a tour of the Quincy bus garage on Hancock Street, which is scheduled for replacement. Both said the conditions inside were terrible, with ceilings and floors crumbling, water stains on the ceiling, and lifts that either don’t work or operate inefficiently.

Vartabedian said it’s unfair that the union’s workers have to operate in such primitive conditions on aging buses. “We’re going to be maintaining old vehicles while the new company will get new buses under warranty,” he said.

Kennedy said he looked under one of the buses. “The underside of the bus is better than the inside of the garage,” he said.

Kennedy repeatedly said the state and federal governments need to invest more in infrastructure and in the MBTA, but he declined to join the union officials in criticizing Baker directly.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Sunday’s event was the second time Kennedy has joined with MBTA union officials to decry privatization. He did so previously in 2017, when contract negotiations with the machinists were going on.

Markey has also supported the machinists, both in 2017 and again last month in a joint letter from him and Sen. Elizabeth Warren to Poftak opposing efforts to privatize T operations.