Boston Globe | By Joan Vennochi | May 3, 2015
They agree employee absenteeism is a problem — just not as big a problem as a recent report made it sound.
Other than that, the leaders of the Boston Carmen’s union are open to reform.
That may sound like a bad joke. But James M. O’Brien, president of Local 589, insists that when it comes to fixing the state’s troubled transit system, he and his 6,000 union brothers and sisters want to be part of the solution.
Changing the image of Local 589 from a pack of bullies to a lovable band of bus drivers and train operators won’t be easy. The union is up against decades of headlines highlighting hardball tactics to protect its perks while defending the poor-to-corrupt work ethic of some members.
To help tell another side of the story, the union hired veteran communications consultant Michael Goldman, and is launching an ad campaign that sends this soothing message: “We’re here to help. We want to help.’’ As O’Brien sees it, “We’ve done a poor job of educating the public. We’re not opposed to everything.’’ Well, that’s good to know.
I sat down recently with O’Brien and three other union leaders — vice president Peggy LaPaglia and board members Larry Kelly and Allen R. Lee — at Local 589 headquarters on Devonshire Street. They sincerely want to fix their image. But what about fixing the T?
From the public’s perspective, that’s what really matters. Last winter’s transit breakdown revealed an old, creaking system in desperate need of upgrades and repairs.
Fixing the T’s physical infrastructure is critical. Fixing the T’s culture is just as important.
What’s needed is a collaborative, top-down commitment to excellence. One message these union leaders want to stress is their frustration about not being consulted on key decisions. Some poor ones were made during the winter’s crisis, they say, because they were left out of the loop.
“The fatal decision,’’ according to O’Brien, was bringing the T to a total halt. Shutting down passenger service was necessary for safety reasons, Kelly said, but officials “should have run the trains, to clear the tracks.’’
When T management finally acquired desperately-needed snow blowing equipment from New York, they switched off third rail power when they didn’t have to, according to these union leaders. But T managers never posed the question about what to do to anyone who knew the answer, they contend.
Union employees operate and repair the trains and buses. But to hear these union leaders tell it, managers who never guided a train into Sullivan Square make uninformed decisions with serious consequences in ordinary times, not just during a crisis. For example, the union leaders cited the T’s purchase of expensive platform monitors they say aren’t placed where train operators can make the best use of them.
Even if they’re right, it doesn’t excuse obstructionist tactics. Ultimately, the Carmen’s union must make a choice. If members want to be treated as professionals, they should act that way.
There are some positive signs. In February, Local 589 agreed to let the MBTA hire Peter Pan buses to shuttle passenger between Red Line stations that suffered weather-related service disruptions. “In the old days, we would have been blocking the buses,’’ acknowledged O’Brien. They didn’t because they understood the public’s desperation.
Union officials contend their resistance to any changes to the so-called Pacheco Law — which puts restrictions on the T’s use of private vendors — is about accountability. The private sector should have to prove its service really does save taxpayers money, said O’Brien.
But what about union accountability?
When it comes to allegations about sick time abuse, they contend the reported statistics are inflated because they include legitimate time off for maternity leave, military leave, jury duty, vacation and job training. (An analysis by CommonWealthmagazine.org back them up.) As far as abuse of the Family Medical Leave Act, they say supervisors sometimes direct employees to use it, and don’t demand proper documentation. “Do we agree some people abuse it? Yes. Shame on those employees,’’ said O’Brien.
From the public’s perspective, that’s not enough. If this union wants a new image, it needs to set a new tone — one that demands more from its members.
Joan Vennochi can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.