As the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority seeks private companies to operate bus maintenance facilities, union workers fighting the plan have cultivated political support from several prominent elected officials.
In recent weeks, US Senator Edward Markey, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and US Representatives Joseph Kennedy III and Michael Capuano, all Democrats, have rallied alongside maintenance workers who fear they will lose their jobs if the work is outsourced.
The Machinists Union Local 264, which has more than 400 members working at MBTA garages, has spent more than a year urging the agency not to outsource their work.
But the labor group has stepped up its campaign considerably since last month, when the T formally began gauging the market for companies to take over operations at three of its nine garages, which would slash about one-fifth of the T’s maintenance workforce.
Union officials say outsourcing the work would be “unfair to workers” and “unsafe to riders,” because MBTA buses break down far less frequently than other transit systems, according to union data.
“The mechanics are very grateful that so many elected leaders are standing with us on the right side of what should be a very clear-cut issue,” said Mike Vartabedian, the union’s business agent.
But the T has said outsourcing a portion of the maintenance work could save more than $12 million a year, cutting down on what it describes as the highest bus maintenance costs in the nation.
Under the plan, six garages would still be staffed by T employees, with garages in Lynn, Quincy, and Boston run by private companies. The hybrid public-private maintenance system could result in better overall operations, MBTA officials have said.
And because the T has brought hundreds of new buses online in recent months, there is less need for maintenance work, according to MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo.
“The MBTA has replaced more than one-third of its fleet with 375 new buses, all of which are under warranty and require a lower level of maintenance, delivering an opportunity to explore significantly reshaping the maintenance program and reinvesting the savings in system-wide improvements,” Pesaturo said.
Meanwhile, the T says, any company that takes over the garage would be encouraged to hire displaced maintenance workers and provide a pension plan. The state’s other regional transit systems all use private companies for maintenance, and most have unionized workforces.
The T is expecting companies to submit bids by next month. Three private transit companies attended an August meeting for interested vendors, according to a sign-in sheet at the event: Dallas-based MV Transit; Cincinnati-based First Transit, a subsidiary of the company that controls Greyhound Bus Lines; and the French company Transdev.
None of the companies responded to requests for comment, but Transdev’s website features a job listing seeking a manager to run the Lynn garage, and First Transit is seeking a general manager “as we prepare for an exciting transit opportunity in the Boston metropolitan area.”
The maintenance contract would run for at least 3½ years. Pesaturo said the T has not yet received any formal proposals, though the agency has given a late-night tour of garage sites. The union has criticized the overnight tour as lacking in transparency, but Pesaturo said the goal was to avoid disruptions “during the garages’ busiest hours of the day.”
The union campaign has largely targeted Governor Charlie Baker, whose administration runs the MBTA, by trotting out workers who say they now regret voting for the governor. Politicians have been more cordial to the popular Republican governor, even while offering support to the workers.
For example, when Walsh — a former labor leader who has criticized other MBTA privatization plans — addressed the workers, he mentioned that he is friendly with Baker and would speak with him about the issue.
The T’s move to privatize bus maintenance comes after the Legislature in 2015 granted a three-year exemption from state law, allowing the agency to more easily outsource services. The T has so far taken advantage of the exemption to privatize services such as fare revenue collection and some warehouse work.
Kennedy has said it makes sense for the agency to explore privatizing certain services that do not directly impact transit, but that bus maintenance is a core service that should be protected. And speaking to the union last week, Capuano said privatization sometimes works, but called on state officials to improve the tenor of negotiations with workers.
Late last year, the MBTA reached an agreement with its largest labor group, the Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589, pledging not to privatize most of that union’s jobs in exchange for changes to wages, raises, and work rules that would save $81 million over four years. The bus mechanics union has called for a similar solution, and says it has put forward proposals that could save $29 million.
The MBTA, however, said most of those proposed savings deal with operational changes that are not subject to collective bargaining, and officials want to cut maintenance costs through a combination of contract negotiations, outsourcing, and other operational changes.