Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Is the Boston Carmen’s Union really here to help?

Globe file 2001

It’s been a surprise on the radio airwaves: A series of cheery ads from the Boston Carmen’s Union, Local 589, proclaiming, “We’re here to help. We want to help.”

The uplifting together-we-can tone of the spots left me wondering whether it might just be possible that the T’s largest union, historically a tough, uncommunicative, reform-resistant outfit, had turned over a new leaf.

And whether it might actually want to be a part of an effort to improve the MBTA after this last long winter of our discontent, even if that meant compromising on some of its prerogatives.

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Then, just a week or so into the radio campaign, my question was answered. The very same union threatened to disrupt the T’s federal funding if state policy makers alter the binding arbitration that T unions enjoy.

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Mind you, the Baker administration isn’t trying to end arbitration altogether. Not by a long shot. It isn’t proposing any changes to so-called grievance arbitration, which gives an arbitrator final say when matters of employee discipline are contested.

The administration’s concern is “interest arbitration,” which lets an arbitrator set the terms of a new contract when the two sides can’t reach agreement.

Even there, the Baker administration isn’t trying to eliminate arbitration outright. Rather, it wants to give a soon-to-be-created MBTA fiscal control board the final say on whether to fund an arbitrator’s award. That change would move the T closer to the situation with police and fire unions, whereby city or town councils vote on whether to fund arbitrators’ awards.

“The administration’s proposal is eminently reasonable,” says Rich Davey, who served as MBTA general manager and later secretary of transportation under Governor Deval Patrick. “Binding arbitration results in an uneven playing field. It pushes labor reps to wait for the arbitration process rather than trying to come to a fair deal at the table.”

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Still, the Carmen’s Union threatened to go nuclear. It warned that if policy makers modify their arbitration arrangement, it will object to the federal Department of Labor, invoking a 1964 law under which the US secretary of labor must stipulate that a transit agency is protecting workers’ rights before federal funds are released. Because the T unions had binding arbitration via an agreement signed pursuant to that law, an objection by the carmen might lead the feds to cut off those funds.

Hmm, you may be wondering, how does this over-the-top reaction to a reasonable proposal square with the union’s newly proclaimed helpfulness?

“We are helping,” James O’Brien, the union president, explained to me. “We are letting them know that . . . binding arbitration falls under the federal law.”

In other words, the union is being helpful by declaring upfront that if policy makers change arbitration, it will target the T’s federal funds. This is also a political bank shot; the union’s threat gives the lawmakers an excuse to deep-six Baker’s request by saying they are fearful that amending arbitration would endanger those federal dollars.

This episode has left me thinking that helpfulness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Given that members of the Carmen’s Union work at the T, I think their threat fits more neatly in the category of “biting off your nose to spite your face.”

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Further, I suspect that the next time the public hears a Carmen’s ad, some listeners will be left thinking this: Thanks, guys, but we could really use a little less help here.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.