Getting inside the T’s union talks

Getting inside the T’s union talks

Sticking point is privatization of 3 bus maintenance garages

IN APRIL, THE MBTA’S Fiscal and Management Control Board passed a budget that called for $8 million in savings from the authority’s bus maintenance operations during the current fiscal year, and $21 million in savings over the course of an entire year.

Most of the board members favored what they called a hybrid approach to bus maintenance – working internally with the MBTA’s machinists union to cut costs at five garages while turning the operations of four smaller garages over to less expensive private operators.

Brian Lang, a member of the control board and a union leader himself, pushed back against the privatization initiative, but he didn’t have enough votes to block it. So he suggested the Fiscal and Management Control Board allow the T to proceed with its hybrid plan, as long as the board went on record saying its preferred approach would be to work with the union to achieve savings. The other four board members agreed.

That vote is now coming back to haunt the board.

The machinists are hounding Gov. Charlie Baker wherever he goes, saying the T is moving ahead with the privatization of the Lynn, Quincy, and Arborway garages (one of the initial four facilities was dropped for logistical reasons) without first attempting to negotiate savings with them.  Politicians are lining up to blast Baker. And the Fiscal and Management Control Board is being pressured to intervene.

Michael Vartabedian, the area director of the International Association of Machinists Local 264, said the T is unwilling to negotiate because it is worried his union will say yes to the T demands, which would mean the garage privatizations would be halted. “It’s a big farce. It’s a political game,” Vartabedian said, claiming that the privatization push is coming directly from Baker’s office.

Timothy King, a member of the board of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation and the president of the Massachusetts Police Association, reminded control board members at their meeting last week that they voted to pursue negotiations with the union. He also said privatization of the garages runs counter to the belief that core operations of the T should not be privatized.

Steve Poftak, who at the time of the April vote was a member of the control board and is now serving as the T’s interim general manager, said in an interview that the transit authority is negotiating with the union while simultaneously exploring the potential benefits of privatization through a request for proposal process. He said that approach fulfills the spirit of the April board vote. “I don’t think our behavior has been inconsistent with that,” he said.

Poftak said the T held negotiating sessions with the machinists union in March, April, and early June. Two of the meetings, however, came before the board vote in April, and Vartabedian said the June meeting wasn’t a true negotiating session. In fact, he said, T officials told him not to bring his negotiating team.

The central issue in the talks – and the reason for the different viewpoints on the negotiations – is the privatization of the garages. Both sides acknowledge they are using the T’s earlier negotiations with the Boston Carmen’s Union as the template for their talks. The Carmen’s Union in December won job protections for most of its members (a total of 2.4 million revenue hours annually) in return for money-saving concessions on work rules and wages and acceptance of the privatization of many non-core services.

Officials say the machinists union has offered similar wage and work rule concessions, but has resisted any privatization. “The only thing we have is core operations,” Vartabedian said, explaining the union’s position.

From the T’s perspective, the union’s opposition to any privatization initiatives is seen as a refusal to negotiate. “The real stumbling block has been would they potentially consider any of these garages being operated by a private provider,” Poftak said. “If we’re going to hit the $21 million savings target, we need some viable alternatives to hit that savings number. The RFP process appears to be one of the most viable ways to reach that number.”

Poftak said the T has already come up with an estimated $8.8 million of the $21 million in savings it needs by cutting jobs, reducing overtime, and other initiatives. He said the T estimates it could save another $12 million by privatizing the three bus maintenance garages, which would leave the T with 28 percent of its bus fleet and 21 percent of its workers overseen by private contractors.

Poftak noted all of the state’s regional transit authorities use private contractors to provide their services. “We’re not the first people to use this model,” Poftak said. “This is not a wild animal that we’ve corralled and intend to introduce here.”

US Rep. Joseph Kennedy, whose district includes regional transit authorities, is supporting the machinists union in its fight against T management. “Recent privatization efforts from the Baker administration have failed to prove they can deliver better quality service at less cost,” Kennedy said in a statement. “At a time when our country is wrestling with profound economic inequity, proposals to cut the jobs, wages, and benefits of public sector workers are a short-sighted and misguided approach to reform.”

Despite all the tough talk on both sides, Lang, the control board member who forged the compromise on talks with the machinists union, is optimistic an amicable solution will be reached. He noted the RFP includes a number of provisions that require applicants to offer jobs to existing T machines and make proposals that can be more readily compared to the T’s existing pricing structure.

Meet the Author

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.

For example, the request for proposals requires applicants to provide “first consideration in hiring” to T machinists who lose their jobs as a result of privatization. Applicants are free to price their services as they see fit, but they must also submit a proposal incorporating the cost of a defined benefit retirement plan for their workers, something few private sector employers do.

Lane said the RFPs will tell a lot about how much savings privatization really offers. “We don’t know if there’s going to be a big difference or not,” he said.

  • JohnSmith

    All the operating and maintenance and pension problems of the MBTA began in earnest with the infamous “Early Out” of 1992, under the Weld Administration (When Governor Baker was Weld’s Secretary of Administration and finance). In 1992, over eight hundred of the most experienced MBTA, engineers, planners, managers, technicians, and tradesmen took early retirement offered by the MBTA. THEN…these eight hundred early retirees, along with the normal several hundred scheduled retirees for 1992 became MBTA pension fund beneficiaries – creating a THOUSAND new MBTA pensioners in a year! THERE WAS NO REASON UNDER THE SUN FOR THIS EARLY OUT! All of the MBTA’s operational, maintenance, and pension issues began in earnest from this point onward. Anybody familiar with the MBTA knows that THIS IS THE TRUTH! Now Governor Baker brays to the talk show crowd about the very MBTA issues that he and Governor Weld helped create!

  • J Powers

    amen john smith! the T just recently offered cash incentives for everybody to retire again, then moaning about the sustainability of the pension mess they helped create. like 92 they have lost some of their most experienced people. nobody seems to report that the bigdig debt heaped on the T, was done so by the baker / weld administration either.