Transit Union Members Organize to Defend Public Transportation

by Michael Ruiz

Karen Maxwell, Assistant Secretary of the Carmen’s Local 538, speaks at the Public Transit Public Good rally outside the MBTA’s offices, November 19, 2020. (Courtesy of the Public Transit Public Good coalition)

The urgency of the fight to protect and preserve our public transportation infrastructure has reached a critical tipping point, and we must work together to defend the MBTA

As the year 2021 has just begun, the MBTA announced it will begin furloughs of workers in the coming months to make up for a budget shortfall. Since the COVID-19 pandemic first ravaged the Greater Boston area in March, there has been a steep decline in MBTA ridership over the course of the imposed government shutdowns. This has resulted in a massive budget deficit due to the reliance of the MBTA budget on fare collection. The MBTA was largely able to avoid revenue losses after receiving help from the initial CARES act but that money has since dried up, and now harsh cuts are on the table for the upcoming fiscal year ’21. The proposed cuts are system wide (bus, train, ferry) and will undoubtedly affect essential workers and communities of color that have been hit hardest by the societal and economic impacts of the coronavirus. 

In response to the announcement of service cuts, the unions and community groups that comprise the Public Transit Public Good coalition, including Boston Carmen’s Union Local 538, held a protest with union MBTA employees, transit riders and public officials such as U.S. Representative Ayanna Pressley (MA-7) calling for the MBTA’s management board, the Fiscal Management and Control Board (FMCB) to stop the cuts. The pressure from union members, lawmakers and the outcry from the public forced the FMCB to walk back some of the more extreme measures of the proposed cuts for now. The FMCB proposed cuts, if enacted later this year, call for suspending 20 bus routes and shutting down weekend trains on 7 of 12 commuter rail lines. Systemwide, the MBTA will see a 20% reduction in service. 

Not only are the service cuts cruel to our existing workforce and the MBTA workforce, it is bad public policy. First, at a time when public health institutions are in agreement that people must socially distance and wear a mask to protect against COVID-19, it is imperative that public policy allows for fewer people to be moved in more vehicles now and in the next 6-9 months to prevent the spread of a deadly disease. The MBTA should actually increase service during the pandemic to accommodate for adequate distancing between riders. Secondly, the cuts will hinder the post-pandemic economic recovery and undermine ongoing infrastructure projects such as transit-oriented housing development, which could ease traffic congestion in the area. Lastly, cuts would starve future transit projects such as the modernization of existing infrastructure to meet the climate change resiliency goals for our coastal communities. 

It is important to understand how fiscal policy directly translates to action in our communities and what those policy decisions mean for working families. 

In the first week of January 2021, a last-minute deal was reached that would allocate $16.5 billion for transportation and infrastructure projects in Massachusetts. The deal, if signed by the Governor, includes a fee increase for Uber and Lyft trips to $1.20, up from 20 cents. The deal also includes a provision which would implement a low-fare program for lower-income riders and a provision which lowers fines and ban arrests for fare evasion on the MBTA. These are huge wins for transit policy advocates. However, the deal does not contain any new revenue generating mechanisms for public transit, including a provision which would allow localities to raise taxes if they so choose to pay for transportation projects. Unfortunately, Governor Charlie Baker remains a stubborn opponent to creating any new revenue streams to fund public transportation infrastructure projects such as utilizing a progressive taxation model to support a sliding scale fare program that would benefit working people and promote economic mobility. Ultimately, Baker vetoed a number of the most beneficial provisions discussed here including the increase on ride hailing services and the low-income fare program. The bill will now head back to the House and Senate which will need super majorities of votes to override the Governor’s veto. 

Political austerity on Beacon Hill is not unfamiliar to transit workers. The funding stream for the MBTA routinely faces harsh criticism as it chronically results in cuts and underfunding, which contributes to the diminished capacity of service. The MBTA fires of 2019 illustrate how a poorly maintained and underfunded transit system is a safety hazard for riders and transit operators. Now, the MBTA faces dual crises: service cuts and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Implementing cuts to service will inevitably lead to crowding and congestion, endangering the lives of passengers, operators and other transit workers. 

Historically, Massachusetts state lawmakers have proposed solutions such as a temporary wealth tax, an increase in gas tax and a small ride-share fee to make up the budget deficit, but these have largely been stalled in the State House or opposed by the Governor. The Baker Administration’s unwillingness to decisively act despite support from the legislature is an injustice to an entire community of workers, labor unions and the public Baker should be serving. In December, Baker expressed opposition to increased MBTA service claiming, “Raising taxes to run more empty buses and trains is a bad idea”. Baker couldn’t be more incorrect—and these comments erase essential workers who rely on MBTA service now on the chopping block.

The MBTA is struggling to reconcile with an estimated budget deficit of as much as $584 million dollars, which the FMCB has announced in no uncertain terms that there will be cuts to service and/or employment to address the budget shortfall. The MBTA has not yet provided an official estimate of the reduction in their workforce if the proposed cuts are implemented, but a recently released study by Public Transit Public Good estimates that as many as 800 workers could lose employment. As the study points out, these jobs are good-paying union jobs which are largely held by people of color, who will now be unemployed.

The Path Forward

As socialists, we believe that working people, when organized, have the power to improve not only their workplace but their society. Our aim is to create a more just society through the expansion of quality public services. Therefore, the fight to make public transit more safe, reliable, affordable, and more functional for more people is a key battle for us, with allies and opportunities to expand worker power abound. Socialists, unions and transit workers can and should continue to work together to organize a broad coalition of support for our shared class interests. It is clear that without funding—which should come from the obscenely wealthy paying their fair share of taxes and a restructuring of the MBTA revenue stream—an underfunded MBTA will hurt communities in myriad ways across the region for the foreseeable future. The collective action of transit workers and advocates to organize and protect the essential service the MBTA provides to the Greater Boston area should serve as a galvanizing call to others to support our labor movement. More work is to be done to oppose the cuts, preserve the MBTA as a critical resource and expand service during the COVID-19 pandemic as a matter of public health.

Transportation infrastructure and programs are some of the most compelling issues facing the commonwealth. Thus it is encouraging to see the Carmen’s Union, the Machinists, building trades maintenance workers and sanitary workers unions coming together with grassroots community groups such as Green Roots Chelsea fighting for climate action and T Riders Union and Alternatives for Community Environment fighting for low-income fares. The strategy of bargaining for the public good, especially in public-sector unions, can achieve great wins for the community that workers are a part of, not just within work hours on the job. We should be encouraging this and member-to-member organizing to make connections and build a broad base of enthusiasm. The work to be done is communicating these possibilities to the union membership and building strong organization and militancy for collective action.

Michael Ruiz is an Engineer, Local Organizer, Progressive Massachusetts Member and Boston DSA Member. 

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