Massachusetts transit workers protest privatization proposal

BOSTON (AP) — Members of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s largest union called on officials Monday to put the brakes on any further efforts to privatize the nation’s fifth-largest transit system.

The protest outside the state transportation building and inside during a meeting of the MBTA’s fiscal and management control board came days after the board acknowledged in a report to lawmakers that outsourcing of bus drivers and maintenance operations was under consideration.

Officials had previously focused on more limited steps, such as hiring outside vendors to handle the MBTA’s cash management system.

James O’Brien, president of the more than 4,000-member Boston Carmen’s Union, told the control board that MBTA workers do not deserve to lose their jobs to private companies seeking to make a profit off the system’s financial woes.

“It has become very clear that there is no end in sight to privatization plans,” said O’Brien. “And that is the wrong approach. It isn’t good for the hardworking employees of the MBTA, it isn’t good for the system, and it certainly isn’t good for our riders.”

O’Brien, who was cheered by workers who wore shirts and carried signs reading, “keep public transportation public,” warned that privatization would lead to reduced service and higher fares.

The five-member board was created last year by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and the Democratic-controlled Legislature after a severe winter that crippled the T and exposed widespread management weaknesses and chronic budget deficits.

The law gave the board a temporary reprieve from the constraints of a state law that restricts privatization of government services.

“We will apply this waiver only if doing so is in the best interest of the traveling public and those who pay for the services we provide,” said Steve Poftak, the board’s vice chairman. “We will only proceed if we are sure the T has the internal capacity to oversee and manage outside contracts.”

The board was obligated to analyze potential ways of saving money while delivering core services, Poftak said, adding that a range of options other than outsourcing were also being explored.

The union presented a plan in June to save the MBTA $24 million over the next four years, but never received a formal response from the board, O’Brien said.

Asked by a reporter if opposition to privatization efforts could ever lead to future job actions by the union, O’Brien noted that MBTA workers are prohibited by law from striking.

State Sen. Thomas McGee, chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic party, said the party stands with the union against further outsourcing and faulted Baker for attempting to use “what should be a last resort as a first option.” The Lynn Democrat is the Senate chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee, which helped craft the law establishing the control board.

Baker told reporters after a meeting with legislative leaders that riders and Massachusetts taxpayers who subsidize the MBTA “deserve to get the best possible system for the best possible price.” The governor added, however, that he has never advocated for privatizing the transit system entirely.

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