Trouble 'round the bend?

MBTA workers have been without a contract for two years. Arbitration will settle the matter soon, but could stir an angry hornets’ nest for 2010.
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  April 30, 2008

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Smells like T spirit!
Boston’s mass-transit system dates back to 1631, when sailboats ferried passengers from Chelsea to Charlestown. In the subsequent 377 years, service has become a teeny bit faster — but at a price that has put the MBTA in debt to a tune of more than $8 billion. With transportation issues getting renewed scrutiny under the Patrick administration, Phoenix staffers fanned out to kick the T’s tires.

• The trolley Svengali: Why Dan Grabauskas might actually fix the T — if he can keep his job. By Adam Reilly.
• Seven habits of highly effective T-riders: Keep your hands on the pole and not on your neighbor’s ass, bucko. By Sharon Steel.
• The T and the Tube: London’s Underground is seething with danger. Boston’s T has cuckoo juice. By James Parker.
• Underground art: Reviewing the MBTA’s subterranean aesthetic. By Mike Miliard.
A sinking feeling: Leaky MBTA tunnels have been seeping Boston’s groundwater for years. Can a new plan prevent potential catastrophe? By David S. Bernstein
• State of hock: If the MBTA wasn't in debt, these items would be at the top of its new wish list. By Jason Notte.
• The Phoenix editorial: Is the MBTA on track?

Perhaps because it hasn’t exploded into a public shutdown of services (as happened a few years ago in New York), arguably the most important fact about the MBTA has escaped public notice: most of its workers have been without a contract for nearly two years. That little-known tidbit is even more surprising since any plans made by the MBTA inevitably hinge upon the status of its union contracts — wages and benefits comprise more than half of the agency’s operating expenses, so any change, up or down, has a big impact on the budget.

Now, the end of the current negotiations are at hand. The Boston Carmen’s Union, whose 6000 or so members represent the bulk of the agency’s employees, recently entered into binding arbitration with the MBTA that will result in a final agreement later this spring or early summer. (Other unions representing T workers are expected to be offered, and agree to, whatever deal emerges with the Boston Carmen.)

But rather than providing stability and predictability for future planning, the final leg of the contract process may just be the beginning of an even more contentious and uncertain chapter in agency-union relations.

Because this four-year contract has taken so long to work out, it will be half over by the time it is signed. That means the two sides — at least one of which figures to be displeased with the arbitrator’s decision — will return almost immediately to the bargaining table to debate the contract that will take effect July 1, 2010.

They will do so in the looming shadow of state-government leaders, who have vowed to reduce through legislation benefits that the union has negotiated. In fact, government officials tried to do so this past month, directly butting into the arbitration process. They backed off, but are moving forward with plans that would dictate the terms of the next contract.

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Related: The truth behind the MBTA fare hike, Roast pork, Sierra Club brings environmental mixer to, More more >
  Topics: News Features , Deval Patrick, Salvatore DiMasi, U.S. Government,  More more >
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