Commonwealth Magazine | By James O’Brien | Sep 1, 2017
THREE YEARS BEFORE BOSTON opened America’s first subway, railway workers were the catalyst for labor being recognized with a federal holiday.
In 1894 George Pullman, facing financial pressure, cut the pay of workers and laid off many on his Chicago Railway. Many workers went on strike, and the American Railway Union, in sympathy, refused to handle Pullman’s cars. There were bloody riots when then-President Grover Cleveland sent troops to Chicago. The following month Congress recognized Labor Day as a federal holiday. Twenty-three states had already recognized the day, including Massachusetts in 1887.
Locally, organized labor has a long and proud tradition on America’s first subway system. For decades, MBTA workers, together with the public, have waited for state leadership that would make a commitment to invest in the system so that it could perform the way its riders deserve. After the horrendous winter of 2015, Gov. Charlie Baker had an opportunity to take on that challenge. The snowfall crippled the MBTA. The need for investment was obvious.
The Baker administration saw a different opportunity. Yes, the equipment was outdated, the electrical switches on the subway lines weren’t built to operate if covered with snow; many red line cars were more than 40 years old; we even have some streetcars that were built in 1915. But the administration argued that if it were allowed to replace T employees, weakening if not breaking the unions, it could fix the T.
Seeing the ugly desire to outsource our jobs, to replace our members’ experience with lower-paid workers unfamiliar with the system, we voluntarily reopened our contract. After six months negotiating with MBTA management, we reached a deal that not only identified $750 million in crucial cost savings for the MBTA over the next 20 years, it protected the jobs of our members— over 4,000 men and women. Opening negotiations was controversial within our own ranks, but we saw the need to control our own destiny.
While I am proud that the jobs of our members were protected, we stand with and worry about our brothers and sisters at the MBTA. Many still face uncertainty. The privatization fight here in Massachusetts is far from over. Local 264, the Machinists Union – ironically one of the unions at the forefront of Labor Day recognition in the 1880s, and the best in the business at what they do – continues to face an uphill battle as MBTA management and the Baker administration seem determined to privatize their jobs. They are looking to turn their jobs over to companies whose motive is profit, and whose workers will face a steep learning curve given the variety and age of the equipment in the system. We applaud elected officials who stand with our brothers and sisters.
We know that privatization isn’t the solution. There is no silver bullet to pull the MBTA into the 21st Century. Replacing experienced workers with inexperienced ones won’t make the trains and buses run on time or break down less often. Commuter rail riders know all too well that the promises of Keolis were empty. Recently, our members have seen problems in MBTA departments that have been privatized: overspending in the warehouses, missed collections in the money room, and we all saw the deplorable treatment of a blind rider by the T’s new private-sector “ambassadors.”
But on this Labor Day, we worry for another reason. Study after study finds that the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us is greater than it has ever been. The Boston Planning and Development Authority found that income disparity is greater in Boston than any city in America. Last week, the Boston Globe reported that families need to earn six-figure salaries to buy a home. Boston is a world-class city, but it won’t stay that way if we harm our middle class and reduce the opportunities that exist for individuals and families to move from low income to middle class— especially if housing, education, and health care costs continue to rise.
At the heart of the Baker administration’s MBTA improvement strategy is the elimination of middle-class jobs, only to be replaced by workers making less. Lowering our region’s standard of living won’t make Massachusetts better— and we already know that replacing experienced workers won’t improve service or make the MBTA any better.
Let’s remember on this Labor Day that organized labor was instrumental in creating jobs in which men and women could work with dignity, and was a key element in expanding America’s middle class. We helped build this country and make America great, and we believe it still is.
At a time when the gap between the wealthy and the rest of us is larger than ever, let’s encourage elected officials to work in partnership with labor, to avoid cheap attention-getting sound bites. Let’s roll up our sleeves and work together to make the MBTA great again.