Carmen’s chief sets record straight

Says Pacheco Law exemption at T didn't force concessions

IT’S TIME TO set the record straight on why the Boston Carmen’s Union agreed to open up its contract with the MBTA, negotiate amendments that greatly benefit the T, and help the authority climb out of the financial hole it’s in thanks to decades of neglect and underfunding.

Everyone appears to have a theory – but nobody has asked us directly why we chose to negotiate and help the T wade through a sea of red ink. Recently, I’ve read several opinion pieces that cite our contract as proof the suspension of the Pacheco Law should be extended.

The truth is our contract agreement is Exhibit A as proof that you don’t need privatization in order to achieve cost savings at the MBTA. For months before negotiations began, we had been seeking a seat at the table for a very simple reason: ours members consider themselves the heart and soul of the T.

The Carmen’s Union agreed to serious concessions in its contract — concessions we did not have to make — because we knew better than anyone that the MBTA is in dire need of investment in its tracks and equipment. And we knew that in order to make those investments, cost savings were needed. Every aspect of the MBTA – management and labor – must contribute to the solution if we are serious about improving the T. Riders had already done their part when the MBTA increased fares. We knew we had to do our part, too. We could complain about old, broken buses and trains, or we could make our contribution. So we did.

Late last year, we reached an agreement that saves the MBTA $750 million over the next 25 years – and preserved the jobs of our 4,100 members. With job retention came the preservation of the knowledge and expertise that our members bring to their work, benefiting our riders and the MBTA.

Many observers denigrate MBTA employees, but the workers at the MBTA – our members and others – have the experience and knowledge needed to improve the system. Look at Michael Haywood, a machinist for the MBTA and member of Local 264. His knowledge and expertise created the machine that is now clearing snow from miles of tracks, making a real difference in how and whether trains can operate in winter storms.

An exemption to the Pacheco Law was passed after the winter of 2015, when the MBTA came to a screeching halt after record snowfall. The breakdowns were blamed on a number of issues – including our members, the very employees who shoveled and plowed the snow, fixed the broken buses, trains, trolleys, and tracks. Our members, together with other T employees, kept a broken system running to the degree that was possible. The failures during the winter of 2015 weren’t caused by the employees—dedicated workers who showed up to work during those historic storms and often found themselves still there working for 24 hours or more. The system failed because for decades, management at the MBTA failed to invest in the system, a fact quantified in multiple studies and reports.

Most often forgotten or ignored when talking about the Pacheco Law is that it is not a ban on privatization, though that is what the Baker Administration would have us believe. Rather, the Pacheco Law requires state agencies to provide evidence that privatization will save money without impacting service. Suspending the Pacheco Law meant only that MBTA leadership doesn’t have to prove actual cost savings before privatizing work.

In this age of alternative facts, proving the financial value of government actions should be encouraged, if not required. Whether you are in a union or not, we should all be able to agree that before thousands of men and women are added to Massachusetts’ unemployment rolls, we should require managers to prove that cost savings and service improvements are real. History is decidedly mixed with regard to savings and performance.

Last year, the work of the MBTA money room and the warehouse was privatized, with expectations that millions of dollars would be saved. Whether those moves will result in savings and improved performance is still in doubt. It’s too soon to tell. Our members report problems in each of those divisions most every day.

In 2014, Keolis told the MBTA they could run the Commuter Rail for a publicly bid price. Two years later Keolis came back and requested an additional $66 million – arguing it was needed to keep the system running. The MBTA, now reliant on the private-sector contractor, had little choice but to pay up, but complaints from riders continue. Service improvements haven’t materialized.

We also must remember that private companies are in the business of making profits. Customer satisfaction will always be secondary to financial concerns in a market—commuter rail—where there is no competition. Just this past week we read that entire commuter rail lines may be shut down on weekends. Will Keolis’ payments be decreased? Will CharlieCard holders receive discounts? It’s wrong to expect that riders should be disadvantaged in favor of the for-profit operator.

Private sector drivers and operators and private sector machinists and electricians working on the same old, broken-down buses, trains, and trolleys  that run on the same broken tracks won’t make a difference. What we need is new equipment and investments in infrastructure; budget cuts and questionable privatization schemes won’t yield anywhere near enough savings.

Meet the Author
The Carmen’s Union continues to believe that public transportation should be kept public. Massachusetts deserves a first-class transportation system, and the best way to get there is to invest in the system – not in a private company seeking to make a profit.

James O’Brien is the president of the Boston Carmen’s Union.