The MBTA is moving toward a new era — but the Boston Carmen’s Union seems stuck in a time warp. That was certainly the case on Thursday, when the union padlocked and blocked the gates outside the T’s money room in Charlestown. Union president James O’Brien and six members of the union’s executive board were arrested after they refused to move out of the way so armored money-transporting vehicles could leave the site.
The carmen are angry over the MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board’s push to privatize the T’s cash-counting operation, which is currently staffed mostly by carmen’s union members. “These are our jobs,” O’Brien said this week. “We’ve been doing it a long time.”
Those jobs, considered plush posts for T workers, are filled by former T bus drivers. In a rational world, that arrangement doesn’t make much sense. Or work particularly well. Earlier this summer, a consulting firm hired to critique the operation catalogued a host of concerns. “Rather than efficient operations, staffing appears to be based on providing work hours for employees,” its report noted. And there certainly were quite a number of employees before the T management started to wind the operation down. At 34 employees, the money sorting and counting staff was double the industry standard; at 71, the total money-room operation was 2.5 times that standard.
Nor was overstaffing the only problem. There are far fewer pickups per route than the private-sector average. The operation lacks performance standards, with no ability to reassign workers based on skill sets or department needs, and with little or no accountability for performance. If workers complete their daily task before the end of their shifts, the report said, they can’t be assigned more work. That’s hardly the first time the T’s money operation has come in for criticism. In 2012, a state audit said the T had lost track of about $100 million in receipts over the course of five years, though theft was not alleged.
So why is the T counting cash in the first place? Because that’s the way things have long been done at the famously change-resistant agency. But that will no longer be the case. Having won legislative authority to put T functions out to private bid, the Baker administration has proceeded on that path. On Thursday, the T’s control board signed a two-year, $7.7 million contract to have Brink’s Inc. take over the operation. The first year of that deal will cost $3.6 million, compared to a fiscal year 2016 cost of $9 million for the existing operation, or $11.8 million when all future retiree costs are factored in.
Notably, T management has promised to offer all displaced employees other jobs at the agency. Most of those opportunities will be driving buses, where there is a regular need for new hires. That offer didn’t placate the union, however. Instead, on the morning of the vote on the Brink’s contract, they staged their padlocking and protest.
As these things go, however, this was not a rough and rowdy union affair. Instead, there was a certain theatricality to it, with the union officials standing there blocking the entrance until arrested, and then being cheered by their members as they were led away to a transit police vehicle. So why the theatrics? Well, it’s (primary) election season for O’Brien and his leadership team, who certainly seemed be playing to rank-and-file,
The carmen have every right to protest, of course, though they might want to think beyond union politics and consider how this sort of spectacle plays with the public. What they can’t expect, however, is for the T to tolerate actions that disrupt operations, such as padlocking facility gates. As for the public itself, they should be pleased by this contracting-out move. It’s exactly the kind of long overdue action necessary to bring about a better-managed, more efficient MBTA.