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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


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.

That would almost certainly result in the one thing that has been avoided in the current drawn-out negotiation: angry public action by MBTA employees, possibly including a strike.

Sticking points
The state will not know the outcome of the arbitration process until after it has already finalized the 2009 fiscal-year budget, making it virtually impossible for legislators to guess how much money the agency will need. And since the final terms of the contract may be retroactive to mid 2006, the MBTA might be facing a one-time cost (in make-up pay) of tens of millions of dollars.

One big piece of the deal has already been settled. The union and the MBTA reached an agreement on the pension plan this past November. In plain terms, the union won that battle. The MBTA wanted to raise the retirement eligibility from 23 years on the job to 25, wanted to impose controls over disability pensions, and wanted to reduce the benefit-formula percentage. None made it into the final deal.

But the arbitrator now must decide on other key issues. Although the two sides’ final positions are not public, sources tell the Phoenix that three big differences remain:

• WAGES After accepting small (or no) wage increases in recent contracts, the union expects at least a three-percent raise in this one. That would come to roughly $10 million a year. But the union is also asking for the raise to be retroactive to the start of this contract period, July 2006 — that would require an additional $20 million in make-up pay. The MBTA, citing its dire financial position, is offering a smaller raise, beginning only when the contract is signed, according to sources.

• HEALTH-CARE-UTILIZATION COSTS Current employees contribute 15 percent of the out-of-pocket costs for health care, with the agency picking up 85 percent. The MBTA wants to shift that breakdown dramatically, say sources, while the union wants to maintain the status quo.

1  |  2  |   next >
  • The trolley Svengali
    Why Dan Grabauskas might actually fix the T — if he can keep his job
  • Underground art
    Reviewing the MBTA’s subterranean aesthetic
  • Sound off
    One citizen journalist’s saga may bode poorly for the new arm of the press
  • More more >
  Topics: News Features , Boston Carmen , William Bulger , Public Transportation ,  More more >
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 See all articles by: DAVID S. BERNSTEIN

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