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The Boston Globe

Special Reports

Spotlight Team | Dec. 16, 1979

Politically powerful unions clamp an iron grip on the MBTA

MBTA commuter trains in South Station.

Globe File/1979

MBTA commuter trains in South Station.

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran on Dec. 16, 1979, and was part of a series of reports that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1980.

This report was prepared by the Globe Spotlight Team, which consists of editor Stephen Kurkjian, reporters Alexander B. Hawes, Jr. and Nils Bruzelius and researcher Joan Vennochi.

The crisis threatening to shut down the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is the result of an iron grip that politically powerful unions have been able to clamp on the system.

A three-month investigation by The Globe Spotlight team has found massive evidence that union domination of management is a major reason why the MBTA, mile for mile, is the most costly and least efficient major transit system in the United States.

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A Spotlight team analysis shows that the MBTA’s cost per mile of operation in 1978 was $6.22, nearly double that of the $3.39 for the second most expensive system, San Francisco’s. The MBTA’s cost per passenger was $1.56 for the year, far more than the $1.12 of runner-up Washington’s new system. By other standard measures of efficiency - cost per vehicle, miles of operation per employee and wage cost per mile of operation - the MBTA score was the worst.

MBTA executives and critics, while differing on details, have agreed that management problems have plagued the rapid transit authority for years.

“The T stinks . . . there is no discipline anywhere,” Robert L. Foster, the chairman of the MBTA, told a meeting of department heads in October.

The Spotlight study found that a principal reason for weak management is an alliance of unions and the State House. The alliance, re-established by the administration of Gov. Edward J. King after a rupture under Gov. Michael Dukakis, has historically undercut management efforts to upgrade labor productivity, and hasdoomed emergency programs to repair breakdown-prone Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs), aging buses and streetcars.

One of the King administration’s first moves was to oust most of a team of officials experienced in management who were hired under the Dukakis administration and replace them with union-oriented persons.

In an interview with The Globe, Foster conceded that the unions have an upper hand in setting productivity standards at the MBTA and that there was a problem with the efficiency of the labor force. Asked if King’s recent intercessions on behalf of the unions had undercut attempts to strengthen management’s position, Foster said:

“There’s a germ of truth in there.”

When asked to cite any examples of improvements in productivity made by his management team so far, Foster said they would not be evident until next April.

One high-ranking official in the Carmen’s Union conceded privately that problems such as insubordination, laziness, harassment of foremen, leaving early and resistance to improvements in work methods are present among the workers repairing Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs) and streetcars. These repairmen are members of the Carmen’s Union.

However, George Adams, president of the Carmen’s Union, and Joseph E. Nevins, president of the Machinists’ Union, the two unions cited most frequently for poor productivity, denied that the work habits of their members were the major cause of present and past problems.

Instead, the two union heads said the present crisis besetting the MBTA stemmed from: a massive breakdown of transmissions in a fleet of buses bought in 1975, which forced the MBTA to curtail sharply its preventive maintenance program; a lack of new parts for aged trolleys; a cut in the number of MBTA mechanics; and management’s failure to deploy the mechanics where they were most needed.

King refused to be interviewed on the problems.

The Globe investigation uncovered specific instances of the alliance between unions and the State House at work and example after example of the adverse effects that union domination has had on the operation and costs of the MBTA. The following is a summary of the Spotlight findings, details of which will appear in subsequent articles.

LOW PRODUCTIVITY - The MBTA has allowed unions to determine work habits and efficiency standards. The contract of the Carmen’s Union, the biggest union among MBTA employees, protects “established practices” from being changed, thus blocking efforts to cut repair costs and coordinate work schedules. There have been some improvements in productivity at some of the smaller repair yards.

INTIMIDATION - Workers and bosses attempting to upgrade efficiency have been harassed, their private cars damaged, their tires slashed, their tools smeared with grease, and they and their wives and children have been threatened.

LACK OF DISCIPLINE - Supervisors say that they are reluctant to discipline workers for harassment of others, frequent unauthorized work slowdowns or other egregious acts because of a failure of upper-level managers to support their decisions. King allegedly has intervened to cancel penalties against union members who supported his election.

SHODDY REPAIRS - Inspectors interviewed said they had found loose brake shoes and dangerously binding accelerators on street cars that had just been overhauled by work crews.

JOB PROTECTION - MBTA employees, whose average base pay of $20,835 is the highest of all state employees, enjoy almost 100 percent protection against layoffs. “Getting a job at the T is like dying and going to heaven,” is a common refrain among MBTA employees.

OVERTIME ABUSE - Workers have been paid for working as much as 96 straight hours. Supervisors say that working efficiently four days straight without sleep is impossible, but they are helpless to prevent such practices because of contract restrictions.

SHORT SHIFTS - Some workers were observed leaving their jobs before their

shift was completed. Supervisors in several repair yards said it is frequent practice among some workers to have others punch their time cards.

THEFTS - More than $300,000 and possibly more than a half-million dollars in fares are apparently stolen by employees each year and attempts by management to curtail the thefts are thwarted by unions and workers.

MISUSE OF PROPERTY - Instead of working on MBTA repair jobs, workers have been seen repairing their cars and painting their wrought-iron furniture on MBTA time, using MBTA tools and MBTA materials.

WEAK MANAGERS - Under King and Foster, upper-level management jobs have once again been handed out to politically connected persons, while a significant number of officials hired or promoted under Dukakis and his MBTA chairman, Robert R. Kiley, for their expertise in dealing with unions have been forced out.

POOR PENSION FUND - The MBTA pension fund, administered by the First National Bank, has had, in recent years, the worst performance record of any public employee pension fund in Massachusetts. Its performance has cost the state millions of dollars in increased appropriations and MBTA employees millions in payroll assessments to maintain retirement benefits.

The most powerful of the 28 unions that represent MBTA employees is Local 589 of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Known as the Carmen’s Union, the group’s membership includes two-thirds of the 6000 MBTA employees, such as drivers, collectors, guards and the mechanics who maintain the streetcars and subway trains - and virtually all their supervisors.

The union’s power has grown steadily since 1912 when, following a strike by its members that closed down the transit system, it won from the Legislature the right to bargain collectively for its members. Other public employee unions in Massachusetts, such as those representing teachers and police, did not receive the right to bargain as a unit until the 1950s and ‘60s.

“They’ve been an aggressive bargaining unit through the years,” one former MBTA labor relations specialist said. “While other unions have been fighting for basic rights that the Carmen have had for years, the Carmen have been pressing for more sophisticated rights.”

One major concession that the union was able to extract from management was the provision that no new work standard could be implemented if it infringed on an established work practice. Union members have used the provision several times to reject management attempts for such improvements as decreasing the amount of time it takes to complete repair jobs, and coordinating work schedules for bus drivers to cut down on excess overtime.

Isadore Gromfine, a Washington lawyer retained by the Carmen’s Union in its contracts and disputes, said the “established practices” clause is common, but not universal, in union contracts with transit authorities. Also, he said, the provision had not been abused to thwart legitimate attempts by MBTA management to improve work practices.

But some MBTA supervisors interviewed by The Globe said trolley and LRV repairmen, who are members of the Carmen’s Union, frequently refuse to heed their new instructions on work habits, citing the “established practices” clause.

“I suppose we could discipline the guy, but then he’d grieve it, and somewhere along the line it would get lost in the shuffle,” one supervisor said. “It’s just not worth that effort.”

Adams, president of the MBTA’s Carmen’s Union, said the chief reason that his members invoked the provision was to prevent new methods that could result in a loss of jobs.

Adams said the problems in repairing the street cars do not stem from repairmen not working hard enough, but because of the old age of the trolleys, the last of which was made about 1941. “They don’t manufacture PCC (streetcars) parts any longer . . . Where are you going to get them? They (the repairmen) are improvising, they’re machining their own parts, and if you look at it that way, they’re doing a fabulous job.”

As for any harassment of foremen and supervisors, while Adams said his union does not condone such acts, he acknowledged such practices do go on.

“I get some awful telephone calls late at night,” Adams said. “And my wife has gotten some terrible phone calls late at night. It’s just a sick society around here.”

Nevins, president of the Local 264 of the International Assn. of Machinists, which represents the 410 MBTA mechanics who maintain and rebuild the system’s bus engines, said his members respect and follow the orders of most supervisors. “There are a few (supervisors) that definitely don’t have respect,” Nevins said. He cited one supervisor who despite the crisis of buses breaking down had allotted only one machinist to repair the bus engines.

“If they utilized the men properly, the could get 100 percent out of them,” Nevins said.

When asked if they were getting 100 percent out of the men now, Nevins said: “That’s a tough question. Morale has picked up definitely now that they (the Foster administration) got rid of that one supervisor. But they’ve still got to do a better job in utilizing the men.”

The unions have been able to cement their close relationship with the Legislature and the governor’s office by being receptive to calls for jobs. According to one former high-ranking state official, the unions used patronage to extract favors from legislators and other high-ranking officials.

”Patronage required union cooperation. During my years in state government, MBTA jobs were filled from long waiting lists. But the lists, as part of a quiet arrangement between management and labor, were never made public. The union leadership carried them around in their pockets, and jumped people to the front to gain favors,” the former official said.

The unions’ close ties to the State House have assisted them on several key matters. For example, in 1967, fearful that management was planning to shut down the MBTA power stations and buy its electricity from Boston Edison, which could have resulted in a loss of union jobs, the union executives appealed to the Massachusetts Legislature for help. The Legislature enacted a law that requires the MBTA to maintain its own power generating facility. A reliable source said that the MBTA could save up to $2 million in costs a year if it decided to buy all of its electricity from Boston Edison.

There has been little improvement in worker productivity even though a 1970 state task force study concluded that no further capital expansion of the MBTA be approved until productivity was increased. A 1968 study had found that it cost more to operate an MBTA subway car than it did for a commercial jet plane. Little has changed since then.

A Spotlight analysis of transit data shows that during 1978, the MBTA ran 6333 miles of vehicle service for each employee. The figure is 23 percent lower than the next least productive system - New York City’s 8242 miles per employee. The same year, the per mile cost of operating the MBTA system was $6.22 - 83 percent higher than the next least efficient system - San Francisco’s $3.39.

While the costs of running the MBTA are at their highest in its history, the service is at its worst.

For the first three quarters of this year, the rate of scheduled runs completed by MBTA vehicles has dropped after generally showing some slight improvement in the past several years.

On two of the four subway lines and on half of the Green Line branches, the percentage of scheduled runs has dropped this year, following improvements in the last two years.

On five of the six major bus lines, the number of missed runs has taken a dramatic jump. For instance, between 1977 and 1978, the total number of bus runs that were missed climbed by 31 percent. At the rate the MBTA is running this year, it will miss 73,000 bus runs, an increase of 102 percent over last year.

The only improvement shown in MBTA service so far this year has been in the performance of nine commuter rail lines. However, the commuter trains are not operated and maintained by MBTA employees, but by the Boston Maine railroad.

Of two extensive crash programs designed by the MBTA management to get buses and trolleys back in service, neither has come near its original goals, although millions of dollars have been expended.

An $8 million program to renovate 50 aging streetcars in two years has resulted in only 15 vehicles being completed at a cost of $7.3 million during the period.

The much ballyhooed emergency program to rebuild 100 broken-down bus engines in 60 days this fall produced only 48 “complete overhauls” during the period, according to MBTA records. According to a source knowledgeable about the program, the work is not as extensive as what would have been done by a private firm - and may result in a loss of as much as 20 percent on the projected 250,000 mile life of the rebuilt engines.

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