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Settling issues at MBTA calls for a beer summit

The latest flap over supposed sunroofs on the MBTA’s armored cars used to transport cash means it’s time for a beer summit, says Kevin Cullen.BOSTON CARMEN’S UNION

It’s too dang hot for anything these days except a beer summit. And it’s about time that Governor Charlie Baker, MBTA chief administrator Brian Shortsleeve, and Carmen’s Union president Jimmy O’Brien sit around a table, pop a couple of cold ones, and just talk.

The Baker administration is spending a lot of time and political capital trying to fix the money pit that is the T, and privatization is their mantra. But it’s anathema to Local 589 of the Carmen’s, whose 4,100 members make up about two-thirds of all T employees.

Last week’s dust-up over supposed sunroofs on the T’s armored cars that are used to transport cash was telling. Baker mentioned it in passing, during a speech to assess the work of the fiscal control board he created to oversee a systemic fix of the T. He said someone cut sunroofs into two armored cars.


Jimmy O’Brien wasn’t happy with the governor.

“He made it sound like an employee used a hacksaw to make a sunroof that compromised security,” O’Brien said. “That didn’t happen. Those trucks have the same roofs they had when they were purchased two decades ago.”

The so-called sunroof was a translucent panel attached to the cab of the truck, O’Brien said, not the armored car compartment of the truck.

Baker didn’t back down, saying his information came from an independent audit that said the roofs had been altered after the trucks were purchased. O’Brien thinks there’s a deliberate attempt by the administration to portray union T workers as lazy and corrupt, to boost public support for privatization.

Last month, the Carmen’s union proposed a cost-cutting measure that would pay their members $24 million less over the next four years and $190 million less over 25 years. They’ll cut wages for new hires and reduce yearly increases if the T agrees to drop privatization plans.


“This isn’t Mr. Bulger’s Transit Authority anymore,” said O’Brien, referring to the old joke about the MBTA being an acronym for an agency dominated by those who got their jobs through a patronage system controlled by former Senate president William Bulger. “We understand the fiscal difficulty the T is facing. We’re offering real solutions, but all we’re getting from the administration is an attempt to take our jobs in the name of privatization.”

O’Brien has one word for privatization: Keolis. The French company won the $2.68 billion contract from the T to operate the commuter rail service. And then came back with hat in hand this month for $66 million extra.

“That’s how privatization works,” O’Brien said. “A company comes in with a bid they know is too low. They claim they’re saving us money, but it’s just not true.”

O’Brien and Shortsleeve get along.

“Brian and I talk a lot,” O’Brien said. “We text a lot. It’s a good relationship. The problem is, we’re trying a new approach. We presented them with our proposals a month ago. It’s the first time in history we opened our contract up early. They have yet to get back to us. There is no substitution for negotiation. Talking and texting is not negotiation.”

But the real problem goes deeper than that. The real problem is philosophical. Baker and Shortsleeve want to save money by privatizing jobs held by union members. O’Brien sees that as needlessly shrinking an already shrinking middle class, and doesn’t believe for a minute that service will get better by paying a lot less for it.


“We believe a public transit system is better run by public workers,” O’Brien said. “We’re not ashamed of providing good jobs with good benefits. You can’t cut and cut and expect the T to perform better. You’ll get a transient workforce. And you’ll lose a chunk of the middle class that’s already being gutted.”

Before they get to the little stuff, they need to talk about the big stuff. The stakes are too high not to at least sit at the same table and talk. Jimmy O’Brien’s got the first round.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.