MBTA Janitors Enlist State Legislators In Fight To Keep Jobs
BOSTON/State House - Joined by several sympathetic legislators at a State House briefing on Thursday, the union representing custodians who clean MBTA stations and trains took another step in their campaign to stop what they are calling disruptive job cuts this fall. The Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ – who represent nearly twenty thousand service workers throughout New England - believe contractors are poised to lay off almost a third of the T janitors beginning September first.
SEIU District Leader Roxana Rivera asked for the public’s support to prevent what she called “massive and unprecedented job cuts…these cuts would come after a fare hike and new late night T service. In other words, the public will pay more but receive less.”
The MBTA required staffing levels to remain unchanged during the first year of its latest five-year contract, beginning September 2013. In an email statement, MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo said in years two through five, the companies whose employees clean MBTA facilities – SJ Services in Danvers, Massachusetts and ABM of Atlanta, Georgia – are “entitled” to reduce the number of workers as long as “the changes do not adversely affect quality and performance.”
Pesaturo added that potential contractors “were required to submit proposals that are fully compliant with the collective bargaining agreement.”
So far, Open Media Boston has been unable to contact anyone at SJ Services for this story. ABM has not responded to voice mail messages and email questions about their proposed staffing levels. But bid documents provided to reporters by the union, show the firms estimate reducing full time staff by an average of thirty four percent across the last four years of the contract. Taking into account part time workers whose hours were not cut as significantly in the bid proposal, the total average workforce reduction is about twenty eight percent. The numbers of management level jobs are not affected, according to the bids.
Sen. Anthony Petrucelli (D-East Boston) said he has 17 MBTA stations in his district. While he said he appreciates Department of Transportation efforts to balance their budgets, he added he wants MBTA officials to find other ways to attain cost savings.
“We want them to look elsewhere to realize the savings they are realizing in this proposal. We worked pretty hard a year ago to improve the financial product with a transportation finance plan and it was our expectation that a cut of this magnitude would not be needed in order to move forward with the work over at the MBTA. So, we’re very concerned about the quality of life effect, the public safety effect, and obviously, the burden this would place on displaced workers…”
Using an analogy from his home, Sen. Kenneth Donnelly (D-Arlington) was blunt in his appraisal of the proposed layoffs.
“I was in the kitchen this morning and I saw that I had a self-cleaning oven. But I haven’t actually seen a self-cleaning station or a self-cleaning train. Who’s going to clean these stations? I know that I have a lot of my constituents who use the T and they expect to have the T that runs efficiently and it’s clean. So how are we going to get the stations clean and the buses clean and the trains clean if we cut our workforce by thirty percent? How are going to take and make a living wage for the people that are the lowest paid workers in this state and we’re going to cut their wages and allow contractors and sub-contractors to cut workforce and cut wages. That’s not what we should be doing.
“We as a state and a country,” continued Donnelly, “should be addressing the wage inequality issues to make sure that our low wage workers make a living wage with health insurance, good benefits and can raise a family. This isn’t how you do it.”
Transportation officials believe recent efforts to change how cleaning services are managed will, according to MBTA spokesperson Joe Pesaturo, “provide a cleaner and safer environment for employees and customers, while improving the training and job satisfaction of cleaning employees and saving money.”
Moves include consolidating oversight from four departments into one and switching to a “performance-based” system of contract management.
Union officials are skeptical. They are asking the MBTA Board of Directors to terminate the current contracts and put the cleaning services out for a re-bid process. Responding to the T’s current plan to penalize contractors if they do not meet cleanliness or safety standards, SEIU’s Roxana Rivera said the union opposes the transit authority’s wait and see approach.
“The contract does not actually have sufficient assurances that they will be able to meet quality standards with these drastic cuts. We think that too much is at stake to just say let’s wait and see how it goes.
“No matter how you cut it, slice it, there’s no way that given the situation now and the type of cleaning they do at outdoors stations and what they have to respond to in regards to blood, urine, feces; that they’re going to be able to do it with a third less of the workforce plus of the remaining workers reducing twenty five percent of those hours…this is unsustainable; there’s no way that workers are going to be able to keep up with what is needed, with what comes through the stations 24-7.”
In an interview prior to the briefing, custodian Jorge Rivera - no relation to Roxana – said, “we’re trying to keep our jobs, we like our jobs, and we do our job and that’s what we want to do.”
Rivera works for SJ Services and cleans T stations on the Orange line. He’s enthusiastic about the work and doesn’t want to lose his job.
“And we’re not asking for money or vacation time, we just want to leave everything as it is, because eventually, if they do some cuts, the station won’t be able to be cleaned properly like it has been for the last couple of years, that I have been here, 8 years working…”
During Thursday’s, State House briefing, legislators supporting the union said any cost savings in the current contract will be lost as laid off workers receive subsidized health insurance and unemployment benefits from the state.
A letter, to be signed by the legislators, is being drafted that will ask Mass. Department of Transportation Secretary Richard Davey to stop the cuts.
Leadership of SEIU, which initiated the Justice for Janitors Campaign twelve years ago, said public actions including protest marches and demonstrations as well as strikes, are all being considered as next steps in the effort to save the T worker’s jobs.