Privatized MBTA transit ambassadors deserve better

Low wages, dangerous working conditions, stabbing prompt union organizing

THE NEWS THAT ONE of the MBTA’s transit ambassadors was stabbed the other day while at work in Copley Station on the Green Line is troubling but not surprising.

These workers were part of a privatization effort at the T back in 2016 and currently work for a company called Block by Block. While talking to these employees, we’ve noticed many unsafe working conditions — being alone in stations at night, not having adequate personal protection equipment available, not having sanitizing wipes for their workstations — the list goes on. It’s a big part of why these workers are now organizing a union with Machinists Local Lodge 264.

If you ride the MBTA, there’s a good chance you’ve been helped by an MBTA transit ambassador at some point.

Perhaps they helped you when a CharlieCard machine or a gate wasn’t working properly, directed you to the correct platform, or helped you feel safer because you didn’t have to be alone at the station catching that last train or bus after working a long shift.

These are essential functions provided by essential workers within an essential system – and you may have taken for granted that the workers providing these services can provide for their families and feel safe at work themselves.

The sad reality is that’s just not the case.

Several recent incidents have underscored just how dangerous this job can be. To be blunt, a key reason that transit ambassadors are deployed to stations with higher crime incidents is so riders don’t have to be unsafe or alone when they are perhaps otherwise the only person on the train platform or waiting for the bus.

More than 200 transit ambassadors work throughout train stations across the MBTA map. When their jobs were privatized a few years back, MBTA executives promised the workers would be well-compensated and treated well by whatever outside vendor assumed control over the services.

You might have assumed the MBTA would work with a local firm that would feel accountable to the community and have a strong understanding of these workers’ needs and of the system.

Instead, they awarded the management of these hardworking public service employees to a company called Block by Block, headquartered in Kentucky, which is owned by another company called SMS Holdings, which is headquartered in Tennessee.

Many of these workers spend their entire shift underground and several have told our organization that they either struggle to make ends meet or have to rely on publicly subsidized health insurance because they can’t afford what Block by Block offers them for coverage. Many workers have reported that they are earning the state-mandated minimum hourly wage of $12 or just above it.

Essentially, MBTA transit ambassadors have been forgotten by the transit officials who promised that the privatization of these jobs would not lead to poor treatment of employees. Unsurprisingly, that promise has been broken — and many workers and families are suffering badly because of it. It’s a source of shame for the system.

The question now is whether the system will take action to ensure the safety and dignity of these employees at work — which they deserve whether or not they have a union.

For its part, Block by Block claims on its company website that it is committed to doing “Whatever It Takes” to exceed customer expectations. It’s time for MBTA officials to let Block by Block know that public transit riders in Massachusetts expect workers to be treated with dignity and respect. They deserve livable wages and good benefits. Additionally, Block by Block needs to acknowledge the risks these individuals take with every shift to help the ridership.

We hope Block by Block and MBTA management will allow these workers a free and fair union election process, and will not waste taxpayer money trying to discourage them from exercising their fundamental right to form a union.

Meet the Author

Mike Vartabedian

Assistant directing business representative, International Association of Machinists District 15
Regardless of whether these workers succeed in unionizing, it is indisputable that they deserve better than what they’re receiving right now from Block by Block and from MBTA management.

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