Opinion

Opinion | Michelle Wu and Josh Zakim

Don’t trash the T

MBTA janitors held a sit-in last week at Governor Charlie Baker's office to protest budget cuts that will likely mean layoffs.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

MBTA janitors held a sit-in last week at Governor Charlie Baker's office to protest budget cuts that will likely mean layoffs.

Last week, the Boston City Council called on Governor Baker and the MBTA to change course on looming janitorial cuts that would undermine the safety and cleanliness that riders expect and deserve. This is not the first time we have made that call, and it does not appear it will be the last.

Earlier this month, the MBTA signed a contract extension with two cleaning contractors that would maintain the same standards for cleanliness while drastically reducing the amount paid, thereby resulting in layoffs for nearly one-third of the subcontracted janitors.

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These cuts, particularly during peak traffic hours, will not only undermine the quality of cleaning services, but will also result in unsustainable workload increases for those workers who remain. In an environment in which workers are routinely called upon to clean not only soil and trash, but urine, vomit, and feces, this has significant service-quality and public health ramifications that the MBTA should avoid.

MBTA officials claim they are merely enforcing a contract with a private vendor and have no control over staffing cuts that may result. No employer, and especially not a public agency, should be insulated from accountability for jobs they pay for and services they receive. The MBTA janitorial contract is worth tens of millions of dollars. The administration should use that financial clout to renegotiate for better terms on a more realistic contract rather than compound existing problems by further slashing janitorial jobs.

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Once again, the Baker administration is heading in the wrong direction on public transportation. We understand the longstanding budgetary challenges plaguing the MBTA, but these challenges should not be resolved by shortchanging our lowest-paid employees, their families, and the millions of riders who depend on a clean and sanitary transit system — especially when sanitation is a marginal but essential expense for a $2 billion agency.

The janitors are rightly worried for their jobs, but every resident of Massachusetts should share their concerns. Over the last year, the MBTA has raised fares and reduced service. Late night service was canceled, stranding third-shift hospitality and health care workers without any affordable recourse. We need to stop treating public transit like an afterthought and start building the kind of first-class system that riders need and deserve.

Transit means more than just a commute. Transportation hubs can transform entire neighborhoods, and equity of service remains a defining issue of our time. You need only a map of the Commonwealth to see how the T has shaped economic growth and opportunity. We need to repair, improve, and expand the system, and we can’t do that without a fully-staffed workforce to keep it clean and safe.

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Our cities and towns keep growing, bringing more and more riders with more dirt and trash to clean. Sanitation will prove only more challenging with time, and we need to prepare the MBTA now to face those challenges tomorrow.

An efficient, modern — and yes, clean — transit system is central to our vision of an open, welcoming, and dynamic Boston. Let’s not trash our future.

Michelle Wu is president of the Boston City Council. Josh Zakim is a Boston city councilor.
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