Senators grill T officials on privatization
Focus on compliance with April vote of control board
IN APRIL, THE MBTA’S Fiscal and Management Control Board approved a budget that counted on millions of dollars in savings from bus maintenance operations, and the five members unanimously approved a motion stating that their preference in achieving those savings was to work collaboratively with the T’s machinists union.
No one spelled out exactly what that collaboration entailed, but the context of the discussion revolved around privatization of several MBTA bus maintenance garages. Brian Lang, a member of the board and a union leader himself, filed the motion not to block privatization (he didn’t have the votes to do that) but to put the board on record in saying its preference would be for staff to negotiate a savings package with the union rather than turning the garages over to private contractors.
At a crowded hearing of the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee on Wednesday, state transportation officials offered their interpretation of the April motion and their compliance with it.
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack and MBTA officials said they have held some discussions with representatives of Local 264 since the April vote, but they acknowledged those discussions would probably not qualify as negotiations.
Pollack also said the request for proposals sent out to private contractors on July 21 required the winning bidder to give preference to existing union workers in hiring employees for the garages and to include a defined pension benefit plan in its proposal. Both those measures gave preference to the union, Pollack said.
“To me the focus of the resolution was on preferring to work with our workforce, meaning preferring to have the current MBTA workforce continue to do bus maintenance, which we did by limiting the RFP to less than 25 percent of the positions – being protective of them – and talking to 264. So it wasn’t any one thing,” Pollack said. “It was an entire strategy for making bus maintenance more cost effective that put the public employee first but kept the market as an option if our employees were going to be treated fairly.”
Asked if Lang, who could not be reached for comment, would agree with that approach, Pollack said: “I’m not going to answer for Brian.”
The April 13, 2017, minutes of the control board say “it was agreed upon by the board that the preferred method of achieving cost savings in bus maintenance was to work in collaboration with the unions in achieving those cost savings.”
Steven Poftak, a member of the Fiscal and Management Control Board who served as acting general manager of the T over the last couple months, said he did hold some discussions with Local 264 officials. “We did engage in dialogue with our union stakeholders,” he said. “From my point of view, we’ve fulfilled the resolution passed by the board.”
Union officials said there have been no negotiations with T officials over alternatives to privatization. The officials said they didn’t even receive a written proposal from MBTA management until last week. That proposal called for privatizing the three garages, the officials said.
Mike Vartabedian, business agent for Local 264, said he was surprised at Pollack’s interpretation of the April vote by the control board. “It’s unbelievable,” he said.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Pollack, Poftak, control board member Brian Shortsleeve, and T Deputy General Manager Jeffrey Gonneville defended their pursuit of privatization as a way to cut costs without sacrificing quality. They recited figures suggesting the current bus maintenance cost per revenue hour of $45 could be cut to as low as $17 using privatization.
Union leaders, backed by members who crowded into the hearing room, pushed back that the T’s numbers were flawed, that reform efforts at another bus maintenance garage, the Cabot facility, had already brought the cost down to $25.68 per revenue hour and that figure would probably go lower.
Sen. John Keenan of Quincy, with five other senators at his side, accused the Baker administration of pursuing privatization as part of a political agenda. He called on the MBTA to withdraw its privatization request for proposals.
Sen. Kathleen O’Connor Ives, the chair of the Post Audit and Oversight Committee, said after the hearing that the MBTA was within its rights to pursue privatization at the bus maintenance garages because the Legislature had granted the transit authority an exemption from the Pacheco Law. She said her goal in holding the hearing was not to block privatization but to determine whether MBTA staff complied with the April directive of the Fiscal and Management Control Board.
“I, as the chair, was particularly interested in why the directive of the control board to – and I’m paraphrasing – negotiate with the machinists hadn’t been executed but the RFP had,” she said. “That gave me great pause and I thought that specifically merited oversight and more public scrutiny.”O’Connor Ives said she intends to call a second hearing on the matter and then issue a report containing the committee’s findings.
Pollack said companies responded to the T’s bus maintenance request for proposals on Sept. 27. She said no timetable for action on the proposals has been set yet, noting the issue is not on the control board’s schedule in October.