Amid union outrage, Baker touts privatization’s impact on bus system

Gov. Charlie Baker defended the privatization effort on Thursday

This is an example of how MBTA's money room security was inadequate. (Image Courtesy: Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority)

BOSTON (STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE) – The president and six other executive board members of the Boston Carmen’s Union were being arraigned in Charlestown District Court Thursday, right around the time the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board voted to outsource cash-handling jobs, which will soon be performed by the private firm Brinks.

Charged with unlawful assembly for locking a gate to the money room early Thursday morning and allegedly refusing to move, the seven were released midday and are due back in court Nov. 28, according to the office of Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley.

MBTA management claims hiring Brinks and moving the workers from the money room back to their prior positions, mostly driving buses, will save millions of dollars and improve their cash management.

“We’re trying to do what’s in the best interest of the MBTA,” control board member Steve Poftak said after Thursday’s meeting. “We’re sensitive to all of our stakeholders, and we do want to work with labor going forward, and these are some tough decisions we need to make.”

Control board member Brian Lang was not present for the unanimous vote, and according to Poftak, he would have voted against the privatization. Lang is president of Unite Here Local 26, a hospitality union, representing Harvard dining hall workers who launched a strike and picketing action Wednesday.

Gov. Charlie Baker defended the privatization effort on Thursday.

“The proposal here is designed to save the T, which everybody agrees has financial issues, millions and millions of dollars,” the governor said at an event he attended in Foxborough, according to a transcript provided by his office. “The money room has been for years a source of problems and serious concerns. The auditor’s office did an audit several years ago on this that said over 10 years $100 million couldn’t be reconciled. I think the T should focus on the things it needs to focus on, which is moving people from one place to another so they can go to work or go to the store or go to school, and in this particular case we’ll have more people driving buses as a result of this initiative, not less. Nobody is going to lose an opportunity to work at the T as a result of this.”

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation supported the privatization move, saying in comments to the board that the T’s “strained resources could be better deployed elsewhere; and the proposal will improve the process integrity.”

Brought to a standstill by brutal winter storms in 2015, the MBTA is now struggling with labor discord as officials mull outsourcing as a way to better hone operations.

The MBTA is also looking to outsource the maintenance of its fare gates, seeking to move toward a more cash-free transit system, potentially placing electrical workers’ jobs in jeopardy.

Lou Antonellis, president of IBEW Local 103 representing 300 MBTA electricians and technicians, said his members do not have the “fall-back” rights that allow workers to return to other positions when their jobs are eliminated.

“The employees that I represent, IBEW Local 103 employees – not one has fall-back rights. They’re all going to be out of a job. We have 12 workers that work at the money room that fix fare collection machines, and we have 50 that work out in the automated fare-collection system,” Antonellis told reporters after the meeting. He said, “They’re going to be out of a job and on the street.”

Antonellis blamed mismanagement for problems that have cropped up within the MBTA, which has a more than $7 billion maintenance backlog and a more than $100 million structural deficit in its operating budget. He said Thursday was “just the beginning” of the MBTA’s privatization moves.

“We’re going to be here every minute of the way fighting it,” Antonellis said. Asked if he, too, would risk arrest, he said, “I’ve been arrested before. I’m not afraid of being arrested.”

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said management recognizes people’s right to protest, and the officials arrested were told that if they had moved out of the way of the gate they were “welcome to stay on the property.”

“It’s our hope that our workers don’t choose to disrupt operations, but as this morning demonstrated, we are prepared to take whatever action is needed, first and foremost to protect the safety of our employees,” Pollack told reporters. “You can’t have a locked gate so that nobody can get out of the facility.”

Lawmakers in 2015 gave the MBTA a three-year window where they could outsource government functions without vetting by the state auditor, a requirement under a statute known as the Pacheco law. Gov. Charlie Baker supported suspension of the Pacheco law at the T, and the governor defended the administration’s move Thursday.

According to the district attorney’s office, in addition to O’Brien, the officials arraigned were Joseph Cerbone, Patrick Hogan, John Hunt, Michael Keller, Lawrence Kelly and Allen Lee.

“Even though this contract is moving forward, we’re not going to back down from this fight to stop privatization,” O’Brien said in a statement.