Senators, unions push back against more T privatization
Say turning 60 buses over to private vendor would be mistake
MBTA UNIONS and their legislative supporters launched a full-court press at Monday’s meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board to block efforts by the transit authority to buy 60 new buses and turn them over to a private contractor to operate and maintain.
Six of the state’s 40 senators and a host of union officials testified before the control board, pressing the panel to invest in its own workforce rather than contracting the work out. “Do not default to privatization, default to working with your employees,” said Sen. John Keenan of Quincy to rousing applause from union workers in the audience.
The T’s contract with its machinists union guarantees the union its existing work and jobs, but allows the T to consider private outside vendors for any expansion. That expansion provision is now coming into play after the T placed an order for 60 new buses to add more peak service and is trying to decide whether to operate and maintain those vehicles with the T workforce or contract the work out to a private vendor. T officials earlier this month said they were preparing a request for proposals from outside vendors even as they explore the costs associated with moving forward with T employees and facilities.
Members of the control board have been divided on the issue. On Monday, they listened to a steady stream of union backers who warned of disaster if they proceed with a private vendor. MBTA unions were united, in part because drivers from the Carmen’s Union and repair workers from the machinists union would both be affected.
But MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said the agency’s contract with the two unions allows the hiring of a private contractor for new or expanded operations. “We believe we are within our contractual rights,” he said, noting that no existing union employees would lose their job if the additional work was contracted out.
In 2017, the MBTA negotiated an $8 million, four-year contract with Paul Revere Transportation to run the agency’s Winthrop bus routes. Private contractors had been handling that service for decades, but what was unusual about that contract was that the T turned over six of its own buses to the company to operate and maintain. That’s the same approach the T is considering with the 60 new buses.
Michael Vartabedian, business agent for the T’s machinists union, told the control board he had unearthed information that two of the six buses overseen by Paul Revere have been out of commission since mid-December and one of the two is likely to be out of service a long time. With MBTA machinists, he said, those buses would have been back in service within days.
Poftak said he had no firsthand knowledge about the disabled Winthrop buses but had no reason to doubt the veracity of Vartabedian’s claim.
One of Vartabedian’s chief complaints to the control board has been that the T promised, as part of the 2018 contract with the machinists, to spend $25 million a year over the life of the contract to upgrade decrepit bus repair facilities. He has accused the T of reneging on that promise, in part by counting some $25 million spent on a seawall adjacent to the Charlestown bus garage. Vartabedian said the seawall did nothing to improve working conditions at the bus facility, and a fellow union official on Monday said all of the seawall money came from federal grants.Poftak acknowledged on Monday that including the seawall funds was a mistake. “That was an overzealous sort of grabbing everything that touches the garage – and it [the seawall] does touch the Charlestown bus garage – and saying this complies with the letter of the agreement. I don’t think it complies with the letter of the spirit of the agreement. The agreement was to invest $25 million annually over the life of the contract. The MBTA has not to do date lived up to their end of that. I accept responsibility for that. It’s a source of great frustration.”
The T is about $25 million behind in its bus garage investments, but Poftak said projects are in the pipeline that will satisfy the spending requirement and they will be rolled out once staff is in place to carry the work out.