Keep your promises, MBTA

Union official slams privatization efforts

ANTIFREEZE RAINING down from broken ceilings. Sweatshop-level conditions eclipsing 110 degrees in the summer. Weeks on end without heat, including during snow and subzero temperatures. Gaping holes in the shop floor causing injury and safety hazards. Rat and mice infestations. Lifts that don’t lift, and inadequate, outdated tools.

Yet a bright spot emerges each day from the rubble of the working conditions at MBTA bus garages. Despite the poor working conditions, union mechanics at the MBTA have kept the busses safe and operating at peak performance while other parts of the system fail.

Recently, the MBTA’s union bus mechanics actually increased our already best-in-the-nation track record for miles-between-breakdowns – while significantly reducing the MBTA’s cost-per-mile. It’s happening thanks to innovations implemented by our union, including the creation of new, lower-cost mechanic positions that save the system money while providing career pathways for the next generation of skilled maintenance workers.

While we’ve done our part, the MBTA management has failed to keep a contractual promise it made to invest $25 million annually toward the infrastructure of its bus maintenance garages. Despite this broken promise, and thanks to the hard work of union mechanics, the MBTA busses remain the safest part of the system. The busses were essentially unmentioned in a damning MBTA safety report made public recently.

The bus maintenance operations are perhaps the one place at the MBTA where the expression, “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” should fully apply.

And yet, the MBTA recently said it may turn to for-profit companies to maintain select busses moving forward. This decision would negatively impact an otherwise safe and reliable bus system by turning vehicles over to companies who have had notoriously poor safety records and much lower miles-between-breakdown track records than in-house mechanics have helped the MBTA achieve.

In 2017, the last time the MBTA announced plans to privatize bus maintenance, the companies being considered at the time had terrible and unsafe track records riddled with vehicle neglect, poor training, and low maintenance standards – all while one of those companies overcharged taxpayers under an earlier contract by hundreds of millions of dollars beyond what they’d originally pledged to do the work for.

The MBTA should not even be thinking about gambling with safety or maintenance of its high-functioning bus fleet at a time when the rest of the system has been exposed as chronically unsafe and unreliable. Instead, they should be solely focused on improving safety and reliability for their customers within the parts of the system they’ve already broken by neglect and underfunding.

The contract negotiated between the MBTA bus mechanics and management in 2017 preserved the current bus maintenance workforce, which has the best miles-between-breakdown record in the country. Although it did allow the MBTA to consider the inadvisable option of outsourcing some future service expansions, the MBTA also committed to bringing the existing garages up to a state of good repair, which it decidedly has not.

As well as creating safe working conditions for the workers, the MBTA also promised to spend $25 million annually on the garages to help create more efficient working conditions by making them state-of-the-art facilities. That promise, so far, has gone wildly unfulfilled.

The reality is that union bus mechanics have done our part and more, and the last thing the MBTA needs to do now is hand its only reliable component over to for-profit transportation companies who have been proven again and again to drive up costs and to reduce safety standards.

Meet the Author

Mike Vartabedian

Assistant directing business representative, International Association of Machinists District 15
When will the MBTA finally realize that their highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce can be an asset and not an enemy in solving many problems at the MBTA?

It is time for the MBTA to do what any good management team should do – unlock the potential of its knowledgeable frontline workforce by investing in and inspiring its people.

Mike Vartabedian was an MBTA diesel bus mechanic and is currently serving as assistant directing business representative for the International Association of Machinists District 15 representing Local Lodge 264.