^ James O’Brien and his well-perked Carmen (with Senator Pacheco, of the infamous “Pacheco Law,” on the right): reforming the T’s wage and contract distortions might be just as difficult as fixing its infrastructure

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During the past week, thanks to a report by the new Fiscal Control Board, we have learned just how in tractable are the MBTA’s expense distortions.We learned that bus drivers, maintenance workers, and train crews profit from an “overtime” pay perk easy to abuse; that their base pay is the highest of any transit system in our nation; and that, alone among public employee unions, their contract requires binding arbitration  of disputes.

All three of these situations require correction. None will be easy to reform. Here’s what I think the T’s new management should do :

1.“overtime” pay. “Overtime” should mean “hours worked after 40 hours have already been clocked.” At the T, it means something else. Any hours other than those on a worker’s given schedule are considered “overtime.” Even if a worker has, say, just ten hours scheduled during a week, any hours outside of those scheduled are to paid as “overtime,” which by law is 150 percent of base pay.

How easy it is to scam this perk, we learned from the FCB report indicating that one maintenance worker earned $ 315,000 last year, two-thirds of it “overtime’ hours. We also learned that 121 workers at one location,  the Cleveland Circle Green Line terminal, clocked four times as much “overtime” pay as the norm for the entire T system.

There isn’t much that T management can do about this perk until the T union contract comes up for re-negotiation; at which time we propose that “overtime” pay be paid only for hours worked beyond the standard forty per week (Holidays and Sunday time excepted).

2. base pay. I don’t propose any adjustment to T workers’ base pay. It is high, yes; but so is the cost of living in Boston. Unhappily, the absence rate of Boston’s T workers is much too high, requiring T management to call in off-duty workers, who even with my overtime reform in place, may well merit overtime pay.

3. binding arbitration. No other public worker union has it. The  contracts of other public worker unions are subject to approval by a municipality’s city council or board of selectmen. That cannot apply to the T, because it serves many municipalities. Binding arbitration contains two poison pills : first, it vitiates the parties’ need to bargain. Second, it imposes costs on the public with0ut any elected body having a say.

These toxins have, for very sound reasons, prevented binding arbitration legislation from being enacted for other public employees. Nor should the T union have it. What, then, do I suggest ? A system whereby a proposed T union contract is offered for approval, after negotiation, by the state legislature. After all, the MBTA either serves the entire state or is a charge upon the entire state’s budget.

Correcting these pay abuses might save the T $ 20,000,000 annually — enough, as my friend Ed Lyons has pointed out — to fund the T’s arts program, late night service, and the current complement of trips offered by The Ride. It is wrong to cut back T service, and egregious to do so because of pay imbalances.

Let’s recall that these pay abuses are hardly the only challenge embedded in the current MBTA. Two or three months ago we learned that the T requires $ 7.6 billion of repairs to upgrade its infrastructure to safety level. It is just as frustrating to face, almost every day, track failures, signal problems, equipment snafus, and late departures. These cannot continue any more than the T union’s pay perks. The entire T system is off the rails.

Getting it back on track will not be easy. I do not know how it will be done without new revenue. Yet Speaker DeLeo this week confirmed that he will seek no new taxes or fees in the FY 2017 state budget — a policy shared by Governor Baker. What then ? It seems that the T is going to seek a substantial fare increase. That might not fly; the riding public doesn’t seem to like paying more for a T body with so many broken limbs. Nor can a fare increase contribute more than a pittance of the huge billions needed to fix the T’s infrastructure.

Where are the answers to these riddles ? Who has them, if any ? How long will it take to correct the T union contract ? I have no idea. I doubt if anyone on Beacon Hill has answers.

Speaker DeLeo could offer answers if he really wanted to. But why should he walk such a plank alone ? Governor Baker and he either form a team, or they don’t, with serious consequences looming as re-election 2018 draws ever nearer.

—  Mike Freedberg / Here and Sphere

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