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The transit-friendly progressive’s dilemma

A rally against MBTA privatization last month at the State House.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

If the fate of the American worker truly depends on freezing the MBTA’s organizational chart in amber, the country’s in trouble. And transit service in Boston won’t get better either.

At an anti-privatization rally at the State House late last month, supporters of the Boston Carmen’s Union brought an inflatable pig — to drive home the idea that the outsourcing of services performed by public employees was tantamount to greed. More striking still was the inflatable fat cat, whose white-gloved paw held a hard-hat worker by the neck.

It’s a bracing message for a liberal city in an age of inequality and populist revolt. But it’s also off target. The T isn’t a heartless hedge fund or a sadistic private-equity firm. It’s a vast public agency crippled by decades of dubious policy decisions and organizational sclerosis. To maximize the amount of money it devotes to serving its customers, the T needs to weed out obvious inefficiencies. In that spirit, the T recently moved to hire a private contractor to take over the agency’s antiquated money-handling operation.

Yet the Carmen’s protest brought out a procession of ostensibly pro-transit officials, from Boston Mayor Martin Walsh to members of the Legislature and the Boston City Council. At a meeting last week, councilors blasted efforts by Governor Charlie Baker’s administration to privatize other parts of the T and applauded the Carmen for resisting them.


Transit-friendly progressives are on the spot: If you believe in benevolent government, it’s easy to dismiss privatization as yet another way to pick on working people. Then again, the T’s customers are working people too. To serve them well in a world of limited resources, the agency needs to be able to adjust its operations and reassign its employees.

Lots of front-line MBTA employees have difficult jobs — and not just the trolley driver who, police say, was beaten early on the morning of Oct. 31 by some fare-evading jerk dressed like the slasher from “Halloween.” Workers who face adverse conditions and inconvenient hours deserve to be paid good wages and benefits in a transparent, straightforward way.


Yet the T’s operations are also subject to convoluted work rules and perverse precedents. WCVB reported earlier this year on the T’s antiquated pencil-and-paper method of assigning shifts, under which some drivers got paid for periods that they couldn’t legally work — and the T paid overtime for other drivers to fill in for them. The cash room was a ripe target, meanwhile, because of outmoded staffing requirements and management structures that promoted inefficiency.

Critics of privatization point to the failings of Keolis, during the infamous winter of 2015 and ever since, as evidence that the MBTA can’t or won’t crack the whip on outside contractors. And it’s true that a once-mighty T has lost a lot of managerial muscle during a decades-long financial squeeze. But that’s one more reason to wish the agency had spent its money differently all along — not on idiosyncrasies like the cash room, but on making sure core problems get fixed.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Facebook: facebook.com/danteramos or on Twitter: @danteramos.