Senators grill T officials on privatization

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 said the T is considering hiring private contractors to run three of the MBTA’s nine bus maintenance garages. She said privatizing three garages would mean 81 workers, or 25 percent of the T’s bus maintenance workers, could lose their jobs, while the remaining 75 percent would continue to work as public employees. She indicated that shielding 75 percent of the machinist workforce from privatization showed a preference for the union.

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.

The MBTA has privatized a number of operations over the last two years, taking advantage of a three-year waiver from the so-called Pacheco Law, which requires the approval of the state auditor before work done by state employees is turned over to a private contractor. The earlier privatizations of warehouse, money collection, and customer service operations prompted some union protests, but the push to turn bus maintenance garages over to private contractors has turned into a fierce political struggle. Many of the state’s leading Democratic politicians have joined the fight; the machinists union is running ads on TV, radio, and billboards.

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.”

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.

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.

  • c squared

    Dear Mister Mohl
    Stephanie Pollack is lying again . Just like she did in this meeting when asked if she knew if the private company’s would be paying the mechanics less . she said she didn’t know. it’s still funny !
    This lie is when she states in the last paragraph of your article were she says no time table for action on the proposal has been set yet, that nothing is on the control boards schedule in October. lie. Because on the Sept 11 FMCB meeting in the GM remarks under bus maintenance RFP timeline .it says the contract for bus maintenance will be awarded Oct 23 . If it been removed I have a copy of it .

  • c squared

    Pollack’s comments in the last paragraph of your article “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”. Are untrue or lies . At the FMCB meeting Sept 11 in the GM remarks under “Bus maintenance RFP Timeline” yes Timeline. .It says the contract for bus maintenance will be awarded Oct 23 . If it’s been removed I have a copy of it .
    just like yesterdays meeting they’re having trouble getting their stories straight.

    • Mhmjjj2012

      The “Bus Maintenance RFP Timeline” hasn’t been removed. It’s still there: 10/23/2017 Estimated Contract Award. Since the FMCB’s own minutes state “collaboration” that should mean much more than “discussion.” What’s “per revenue hour mean and how is it possible to cut it from $45 to $17? Does the RFP leave the heavy lifting to the remaining MBTA workers while privatizing the low cost stuff like oil changes and filling windshield washer fluid? Seems like the effort is directed at privatizing whatever is possible not fixing what needs fixing.

    • J Powers

      contract award 10/23/17 another thing the RFP says is this privatization will start 12/31/17 And again all without talking to the machinists whose buses were the only thing rolling in the blizzard of 2015 at a whopping 98%

  • c squared

    They seem to have a problem with details .