Union officials, Democrats rail against MBTA privatization
BOSTON — Filling the air outside Faneuil Hall on Wednesday with charged rhetoric about corporations profiting off government work, union officials and elected Democrats railed against privatization at the MBTA without charting a clear course for stopping those moves anytime soon.
"It's a systematic beat-down of the middle class," said Sen. John Keenan, a Quincy Democrat. "That's what it is. There's no secret to it. For corporate America it's become more important to pay a dividend than to pay a fair wage."
There are few options to address privatization legislatively before the next session starts in January.
"There are things we can still do about it. Even this year," said Senate President Pro Tem Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, suggesting the rare step of seeking to call lawmakers back to the State House for a special session. He said, "This is extremely unfair what is taking place right now."
The Legislature over the years has shown little interest in holding formal sessions in the months before and after the November elections. According to Pacheco's office he has not circulated a letter calling for such an unusual move. The joint rules spell out the first step to initiate a session after July 31 on an election year: petitions from 21 members of the Senate and 81 members of the House.
"I don't exactly know what the probability of that is. I support it. It's a great idea," Rep. Dan Ryan, a Charlestown Democrat who is in his first full session in the House, told the News Service.
Ryan told the crowd he supported the actions taken by seven members of the Boston Carmen's Union who were arrested outside the MBTA's money room in Charlestown last week before the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board voted in favor of hiring the private firm Brinks to manage cash-handling.
"We had a few people go to jail this week, because it's that important. It's that important to stand up and put this stuff on the line like they did here in Boston over 250 years ago," Ryan said. "We're taking our history back from the Tea Party and we're taking the MBTA back from privatization."
T leadership has turned toward privatization with the governor's and Legislature's blessing and under the pressure of a more than $100 million structural budget deficit and an aging system whose more than $7 billion repair backlog translates into delayed trains and frustrated commuters.
The lion's share of the blame from Wednesday's speakers landed at the feet of Gov. Charlie Baker, who proposed completely freeing the MBTA from the statutorily mandated procedures governing privatization at most state agencies. Known as the Pacheco law, for its chief proponent, the law ordinarily requires privatization plans to be vetted by the state auditor.
In 2015 as part of the annual budget bill, the Legislature enacted a provision first initiated by the House Committee on Ways and Means to give the MBTA a three-year suspension of the Pacheco law. Lawmakers' actions were not spared excoriations by union officials on Wednesday.
"I'm not happy with our legislators, especially in the House, for writing this into the budget, and not having a debate, and not having a roll call. That was wrong. We need to have a democracy in our Legislature, and it didn't happen on this issue," AFL-CIO Massachusetts President Steve Tolman told the crowd.
Jimmy O'Brien, the president of the Boston Carmen's Union who was among those arrested last week, served as emcee at the event, flanked by two towering blow-ups of a pig with a cigar and a fat cat, representing corporate interests.
"I want to say something to our legislators that are here, OK? We appreciate you being here but actions speak louder than words, all right?" said Lou Antonellis, president of IBEW Local 103 representing 300 MBTA electricians and technicians. "We need your help up there. We're in this mess. We're in this fight. We need you."
Tolman said the T's move to privatize cash handling doesn't pass the "smell test," pointing out the T's consultant on the project, Shellie Crandall, has worked for both Brinks and GardaWorld, the two companies to bid on the work.
"She's an outsourcer," Tolman told the News Service. Referencing the governor's claim that MBTA workers cut sunroofs in armored trucks - a charge strongly disputed by the union, backing up its defense with photos - Tolman said, "It's only starting with the money room. And the inappropriate manner that they operated in, providing the public with misinformation to get the public against MBTA employees is totally wrong."
In the crisp fall air, as tourists paused to listen to speeches on their way into the Faneuil Hall gift shop and the Boston Police Detectives Benevolent Society handed out free hot dogs and hamburgers, speakers took a hard line against privatization.
A former president of the Ironworkers Local 7, Boston Congressman Stephen Lynch said Chicago and other areas around the country had hemmed themselves into bad deals through privatization.
"It's not good for the consumer. It's not good for the citizens of Massachusetts. It's certainly not respectful of the workers in Massachusetts," Lynch said. He said agreements with private companies to provide government services lead to lower wages and no pensions, calling it the "engine of inequality."
MBTA Chief Administrator Brian Shortsleeve, a former U.S. Marine officer who was managing director of General Catalyst before joining the T, kicked off outsourcing talk a little over a year ago with a plan to explore outsourcing less popular and farther flung bus routes, while retaining the MBTA drivers to work on busier routes.
Shortsleeve has argued that private companies have expertise and economies of scale to better handle inventory management and repairs to fare gates. The Fiscal and Management Control Board in a Sept. 1 report signaled it might seek outsourcing of its core operations.
O'Brien told reporters he understands why lawmakers took action after the harsh winter of 2015 exposed problems at the T, though he disagrees with suspending the Pacheco law, and believes the Baker administration indicated privatization would be used exclusively for "procurement and infrastructure."
Asked about MBTA privatization in September, Senate President Stan Rosenberg told reporters the main focus on addressing the T a year and a half ago was improving service and "ensuring that there be no net loss of people on the front lines."
At that same gathering with reporters in September, Baker said he did not recall job preservation being a focus when the Pacheco law was suspended.
"The idea here is not to privatize the T, period," the governor said. He said the T had focused on improving administrative functions of the T and noted the agency continues to hire bus drivers.
While lawmakers are not scheduled to return to a formal session until next year, the MBTA's control board continues to meet multiple times a month.
Sen. Tom McGee, a Lynn Democrat, who is co-chairman of the Transportation Committee, struggled to think of a precedent for returning in a special session, but said he would support that move if it gained steam.
"If there support to do it, I would support coming back," McGee told reporters.
Pacheco held out hope that support would grow for a special session.
"I hope that there's enough members, in particular in the House, that would be interested in signing onto a demand to come in session for a day and straighten this out," Pacheco told the News Service.
House Speaker Robert DeLeo does not plan for the House to return to formal session this year, according to a spokeswoman. A spokesman for the Senate president said Rosenberg is observing Yom Kippur and unavailable for comment.
The Carmen's Union plans to hold an informational picket outside the Cabot Bus Garage in South Boston on Monday from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and then again from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.