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FLIPPING US THE BIRD: SCOOTER-SHARING COMPANY LITTERS CAMBERVILLE WITH DANGEROUS VEHICLES NO ONE ASKED FOR

Bird’s model looks to be entirely profit-driven and completely mean-spirited. No matter how much CEO Travis VanderZanden tries to equate the unasked-for and unwanted service to “freedom.”

TOWNIE: MASS REGIONAL TRANSIT AUTHORITIES FACE MAJOR BUDGET CRISIS

RTA bus

 

Gov. Baker’s proposed cuts throw gasoline on raging policy fire

 

February 21, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

A quarter-century ago, I lived in Lawrence for a few months. Because it was the closest place to Boston that I could find a cheap apartment on short notice. Unfortunately, I had a low-paying job in the city and couldn’t afford a car. So I took the commuter rail over an hour each way back and forth whenever I had a shift. Then at the end of the day, I was faced with getting to my apartment a couple of miles away from the station. Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority (MVRTA) bus service ran near my place. But even in the early 1990s with a state budget that looks more humane in retrospect, it was infrequent at best. And my bus dropped me off a few blocks away from where I lived when it was running.

 

Now that was during rush hour on a weekday. If I got home later than early evening—especially on weekends—MVRTA buses had already stopped running. I moved there in December. And until I moved back to Boston the following March, through what proved to be a very cold winter, I would often get off my train, watch all but a handful of people get into waiting cars and leave, and then begin the long, frozen slog home. Across the Merrimack River, on sidewalks that were mostly unshoveled and roads that were indifferently plowed.


Standing in the middle of Duck Bridge one Sunday night in mid-February during a fierce snowstorm, I experienced a moment of nearly perfect alienation. The scene was completely desolate. No vehicles were on the road. It was pitch black except for the occasional street light with the darker black of largely abandoned textile mills looming in the middle distance. Snow was piling up all around me. The brutal wind off the water cut through my coat. My sneakers were entirely insufficient to the task of keeping me consistently upright—let alone keeping my feet warm and dry. And I remember thinking that if I had slipped and fallen into the river, no one would have the slightest idea of where I’d gone until spring. Because in the era before ubiquitous cell phones or texters, I could not have typed “aaaaaaah” to my girlfriend as I fell. So who would be the wiser?


Fast-forward to this week, and that memory immediately sprang to mind when I read the transportation section of Gov. Charlie Baker’s annual state budget proposal. And discovered that he’s planning to level-fund the 15 regional transit authorities (RTAs) for $80.4 million, according to the Mass Budget and Policy Center, while most Bostonians are focusing on the ongoing fight to keep the MBTA solvent. Authorities like the Merrimack Valley Regional Transit Authority… which is already cutting back bus, van, and Boston commuter service and eliminating that Sunday service I kept missing in the early ’90s. Since level-funding means a budget cut, given annual cost increases. And it’s not looking like the legislature is likely to swoop in to save the RTAs later in our now-normalized austerity budget process.


After all, if the legions of working- and middle-class Bostonians that rely on public transit can’t yet force elected state officials to properly fund the MBTA, the smaller numbers of riders in outlying cities like Brockton, Fitchburg, Lowell, and Lawrence are in even worse straits. Especially when many of them are immigrants who can’t vote.


Yet the need for public transit gets more dire the farther you get from Boston. If you don’t have a car in places like Athol, Greenfield, Holyoke, and Pittsfield, literally your only inexpensive transit option is bus service run by your regional transit authority. Which I’ve already made quite clear is of limited usefulness at the best of times. RTAs don’t go everywhere riders need to go and don’t run many of the times riders need to use them. As I experienced during my brief, unpleasant Lawrence sojourn.


People without cars in the many parts of the state that aren’t reached by the MBTA’s main bus and subway lines are already at a major disadvantage in terms of their ability to access jobs, laundry, shopping, education, social services, daycare, and healthcare in the best of times. If RTA service continues to be whittled away year by year, eventually there will be no public transportation left in many locales. And taking an Uber or Lyft won’t be an option for people that can’t even afford a hike in bus fare. Even while those private transportation services are angling to replace public transit for those that can pay their largely unregulated fares.

 

That is no minor problem—lest readers think that only small numbers of people lack cars in Mass cities outside of the Boston metro area. It’s a major crisis. For example, according to a Governing magazine article looking at car ownership in US cities with a population over 100,000, 19.3 percent of Worcester households and 22.2 percent of Springfield households did not have a car in 2016. Meanwhile, my colleague Bill Shaner at Worcester Magazine just reported that “[t]he Worcester Regional Transit Authority Advisory Board voted to send proposed service cuts to a public hearing after decrying the possible changes as a ‘death spiral’ for the bus system.


He continued, “WRTA officials unveiled several possible measures to bridge a $1.2 million budget gap, due mostly to budget cuts to the RTA system at the state level. The possible measures include routes cut wholesale, cut weekend service, and diminished routes, which would increase wait times between buses.”

 

Both WRTA Board Chairman William Lehtola and WRTA Administrator Jonathan Church agreed that the system would “cease to exist in a few years” if the funding crisis continues unabated.

 

Meanwhile, the Republican reported that Springfield RTA “the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority has proposed a 25 percent across-the-board increase in fares and pass prices and a slate of service cutbacks, all to take force July 1.”

 

So make no mistake, this is a significant escalation in the war on Mass working families by Baker and any legislators that back similar cuts to public transit around the state. Cuts that RTAs have already been struggling with for years. As with the battle to save the MBTA and other public services, the RTAs can only be defended with a concerted fight from their riders. Whose goal must be to increase taxes on corporations and the rich in the Commonwealth, and to change state and local budget priorities to better serve the needs of all Mass residents.

 

Failing that, you’ll see a lot more people walking long distances in inclement weather statewide. And all too many of them won’t be able to escape their “transit desert” like I did. They will simply become more and more isolated. Until they literally disappear. The way I feared doing on a lonely bridge in the depths of a Merrimack Valley winter half a lifetime agone.

 


Townie (a worm’s eye view of the Mass power structure) is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

CRISIS AVERTED

MBTA workers protest privatization. Image courtesy INVEST NOW.
MBTA workers protest privatization. Image courtesy INVEST NOW.

 

MBTA bus mechanics beat back privatization… at a cost

 

February 14, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

Unionized bus mechanics represented by the International Association of Machinists Local 264 won an important victory last week when they agreed to a four-year contract with the MBTA—effectively ending a two-year effort by the transportation authority’s Fiscal and Management Control Board to privatize three bus garages, eliminate 150 good jobs according to IAM District 15 Assistant Directing Business Representative Mike Vartabedian, and crush the union.

 

The attack on the bus mechanics, and all unionized MBTA workers, actually began in 2015 when Gov. Charlie Baker (with plenty of help from his pals at his old stomping grounds, the right-wing libertarian Pioneer Institute) pushed a three-year suspension of the landmark anti-privatization Pacheco Law through the Mass legislature as part of the annual budget. The suspension applied only to the T. Shortly thereafter, Baker appointed the five-member FMCB—one of them, Steve Poftak, being a former Pioneer staffer like the governor—to get to work privatizing a public transit system serving much of eastern Massachusetts.

 

Because, you know, reasons. Most of them involving transferring as much public wealth into private hands as possible. And freedom. For the rich to get richer and the poor to starve.

 

The 1993 law, officially known as the Taxpayer Protection Act, protects unionized state workers and the people of Massachusetts from outsourcing and related corporate malfeasance in six ways that the Institute for Local Self-Reliance was thoughtful enough to summarize:

 

  1. Agencies seeking to contract out a service must prove not only that the move would save money, but that it would save money even if state employees were to work in the “most cost-efficient manner.”

 

  1. Firms cannot win business if they’ll pay less than the lowest amount the state pays its employees for similar services.

 

  1. Every privatization contract must contain provisions requiring the contractor to offer positions to qualified regular employees of the agency whose state employment is terminated because of the privatization contract.

 

  1. The contractor must add lost tax revenues to the cost of the bid if any work is to be performed outside Massachusetts.

 

  1. Private bids must also include estimated costs of monitoring contractor performance.

 

  1. Public employees have the opportunity to submit bids to keep the work in-house and “the agency shall provide adequate resources for the purpose of encouraging and assisting present agency employees to organize and submit a bid to provide the subject services.”

 

In suspending the law, the Baker administration meant to allow corporations free reign to eliminate huge numbers of good unionized public transit jobs and replace them with bad underpaid jobs with few or no benefits and little security. All in the service of reigning in costs at a quasi-independent transportation agency that is only having budget trouble because the state government—including the dominant Democratic legislative leadership that absolutely does not put its money where its collective mouth is—refuses to return to fully funding it based on its actual needs (see my 2016 column “Squawk or Walk” for more background). Rather than hobbling the MBTA with insufficient annual support and then dumping a huge amount of Big Dig debt on it for good measure. Because that might involve finally raising taxes on corporations and the rich. And corporations and the rich don’t want that. Just ask Raise Up Massachusetts—the folks pushing for the upcoming referendum fight for the “Millionaires’ Tax” that would devote money to properly funding public transit, among other worthy goals.

 

The expected script happily got flipped by the Machinists union and the labor-led INVEST NOW coalition, who fought hard for many months to demonstrate that privatizing the MBTA bus garages was a bad move. For everyone but the fat cats that stood to make millions off the misery of T workers and T riders alike. Since the already-overburdened, underfunded T bus system would basically collapse without the skilled union mechanics keeping its bus fleet in good order for short money.

 

The union coalition and allies like Attorney General Maura Healey scored major points when they demonstrated that only one private transportation company, First Transit, had submitted a bid to run the T bus garages in question. The same company that paid a $7.3 million settlement to the Commonwealth in 2012 after backing out of a contract to run the T’s The Ride, a door-to-door service for disabled commuters.

 

Advocates and labor-friendly legislators—including the author of the Pacheco Law, Sen. Marc Pacheco (D-Taunton), himself—testified to the Fiscal and Management Control Board that First Transit’s action resulted in a $66 million deficit for the state, according to State House News Service.

 

Ultimately, the union’s grassroots campaign worked, and the FMCB, the governor, conservatives from both parties in the legislature, and the ideologues at the Pioneer Institute were forced to back off this latest privatization push. But all battles exact a cost. So while the T bus mechanics scored a solid win overall, their new contract looks to be a mixed bag. On the upside, it keeps all nine MBTA bus garages plus one support facility in Everett public and includes Taxpayer Protection Act provisions that will help provide Local 264 members legal cover against privatization until the law’s suspension ends later this year.

 

On the downside, it forces the workers to accept low cost-of-living raises over the contract term and allows the T to bring in new workers for worse money and benefits than they would have started with previously, according to the Patriot Ledger. And, like the Carmen’s Union contract that preceded it, the Machinists’ agreement allows the T to hire private contractors to perform work outside its 955-bus core service. But only if they “maintain the same procedures and quality standards followed by the machinists,” according to Commonwealth magazine.

 

Since the devil is often in the details of such statements, it’s hard to tell if that will really stop T management from undercutting the union should bus service expand. Which it very well might—since the Boston Globe reported that T capital expenditures have risen under the Baker administration, even while it has done its level best to ram through cuts in operating expenditures on the backs of workers. Like the 406 bus mechanics and fuelers in Local 264’s MBTA bargaining unit, who are essentially having $4.1 million a year in concessions forced on them in the service of a completely avoidable budget deficit.

 

Still, all in all, the contract demonstrates that fighting for justice in the workplace remains far better than not fighting. If the union had been defeated, many workers would have lost their jobs and their families would have been immediately thrown into poverty. Their replacements would have been un-unionized and unable to easily defend themselves against T management. So, readers observing this fight should think twice before criticizing the bus mechanics, and think carefully about their own work situation. If your bosses decide to outsource your jobs to some fly-by-night company tomorrow, could you and your co-workers defend yourselves? For nearly 90 percent of American workers who aren’t unionized, the answer remains “probably not.”

 

The only thing that can change that sorry situation is for workers to stand their ground. Those of you interested in doing that should check out the website of the main US labor federation, the AFL-CIO, for more information on how to form a union at your workplace: aflcio.org/formaunion.

 

It’s not easy to do, no lie. I lost a job for helping lead a union drive not three years back. Fortunately, all the other workers in my former unit at that employer are now unionized. So it’s worth the risk. And it’s necessary. And everyone who lives from paycheck to paycheck should consider it.

 

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

WHEN SLOGANS REPLACE BIRTHRIGHTS

19.17-AH-TOP

How corporate ed reform threatens democracy

April 25, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Over the last couple of decades, it has become fashionable for Americans to attack our public education system. Behind these attacks is that most un-American of attitudes: elitism. This is problematic for a number of reasons — the main one being that America remains a democracy. Not a perfect democracy where citizens get to vote on pretty much every decision at every level, but a system of government where citizens can at least have some political impact when they stand up for themselves in the voting booth and in daily life.

In a democracy, the education of all children capable of being educated is a vital necessity. Because, as a political system, it can only continue if its history, practices, and values are taught to young citizens by older citizens on an ongoing basis. Further, living in a democracy requires the experience of being directly socialized into its norms.

A public school therefore is both the training ground of our democratic society … and its mirror. Virtually every kind of young person in any given community is there. From every background represented in that locale. Kids from every race, sex, class, ethnicity, gender, ability, immigration status, and belief system. Understanding that we’re still a very segregated nation, and that all too many neighborhoods, towns, and cities remain relative monocultures.

Regardless, this generally diverse student body has to learn how to get along and work together toward common goals. Just like they will to one degree or another in their adult lives. This, more than any of the sadly diminishing number of civics classes on offer in today’s public schools, teaches students how to be active citizens in a democracy.

Or at least that was the ideal when public education became the standard a century back.

But that ideal has been replaced by a pernicious new mantra: Public schools don’t work. Our government can’t afford to educate every child. And we shouldn’t try. Political front groups bankrolled by corporations — ultimately seeking to privatize public schools and convert them into a profitable industry — are convincing average Americans to help destroy their own birthright to a good public education on little more evidence than such cynical slogans.

They are leading the charge to steal public funds from public education — more than $450 million this fiscal year alone in the Commonwealth, according to the Mass Teachers Association — and give them to charter schools that do not have a mandate to educate every child in their communities. Only the better students who have parents with the time and money to participate in mandatory charter school family activities.

Public schools are getting stripped of their best and brightest in this fashion. Sending their performance into decline in many instances and strengthening the argument that charter schools are inherently superior to the publics. Something that study after study shows is not the case.
 Students in those charter schools do not sit in class with other students from every conceivable background. They sit with a limited selection of classmates.

And they are taught, whether their teachers intend it or not, to be elitists. Not just that they are smarter than other students — which can happen in any school — but that they are better than other students.

The same thing has happened for generations in private schools, too. But Americans do have the democratic right to organize private schools if they want to — as long as they are prepared to fund those schools without significant government support. And private schools have not attempted to tear down the public school system the way charter schools and the corporate titans behind them have been doing. Nor are they as damaging to our society as the often wildly anti-social and anti-democratic homeschooling movement has been. A topic for another day.

So, parents, remember that your decision about where to send your kids to school has very serious consequences for the future of our democracy.

And students, it’s true that no school is perfect, and that all schools suck at least some of the time. But where would you rather be? In a school that truly reflects your community and the best American values of equality, justice, and opportunity for all? Or in a school that only believes that “elite” students deserve a good education, and to hell with everyone else?

It’s your decision. As long as we remain a democratic nation.

This column was originally written for the Beyond Boston regional news digest show — co-produced by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and several area public access television stations.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunesGoogle Play MusicBlubrryStitcherTuneIn, and YouTube

 
 

ACTION CALL: SAVE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION WITH INVEST NOW MASS

Photo of giant Charlie - Chris Faraone

Photo of giant Charlie by Chris Faraone

  

March 21, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Over the long four months since the election of President Donald Trump, this column has focused more on national politics than usual — with special attention to the promising wave of broadly progressive grassroots activism that has resulted. However, it’s important that our newly restive populace also keep related developments on the state political scene on their radar. So, here’s the first installment of an occasional “Action Call” series to review hot-button issues in Bay State politics, and to point readers toward forward-thinking advocacy groups they can join to take action in the public interest.

This time out, a look at the public transportation crisis. We may have just dodged a bullet with Gov. Charlie Baker backing off a plan to cut weekend commuter rail service for a year to ostensibly save $10 million while making upgrades to the rail lines — which would doubtless have been disastrous for the regional economy. But the MBTA — and 15 regional transit authorities across the Bay State — have been in serious trouble for some time. Though not for the reasons most news media focus on.

The origin of the present dilemma goes back to 2000, when the state eliminated the T’s “backward funding” system where any costs it could not cover with fares and other income were simply paid by state government, and replaced it with a “forward funding” system where the T received an annual outlay at the start of each fiscal year based on a fixed percentage of the state sales tax. Later, the budgets of the other regional transit authorities were “reformed” along similar lines.

Making the deal worse for populous eastern Massachusetts, debt that should be part of the state budget was loaded onto the T in “exchange” for getting the cut of sales tax revenue. Then those revenues failed to meet projected targets, leading to more debt. All of which caused the rising fares, worsening service, and diminishing investment in physical plant and rolling stock that riders have been made to suffer through — even as T ridership grew 15 percent between 2004 and 2014.

The solution to this problem is to return to funding the T and the regional transit authorities as the public services they are, and to stop pretending that they’re businesses — or that eliminating good union transit jobs and slashing desperately needed services with various privatization schemes will do anything more than line the pockets of favored consultants and contractors. Such a move will require tax increases on corporations and the rich that they will fight tooth and nail to stop. And that’s why large numbers of people will have to take to the streets to make it possible.

Readers interested in taking action to defend and expand public transportation statewide should check out the big new labor-community activist coalition, Invest Now Mass. Its member organizations range from T workers unions to public transit advocacy groups to civic associations. According to Invest Now lead organizer John Doherty, the coalition plans to pursue organizing in five areas: investment, equity, economic development, climate, and transparency. Plug in at its website: investnowma.org. Anyone interested in having an Invest Now organizer give a public talk in their city or town can click the “Host a Speaker” link in the “Take Action” section of the website or contact Doherty directly at 617–592–2230.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Check out the Apparent Horizon Podcast on:

iTunes, Google Play Music, Blubrry, Stitcher, TuneIn, and YouTube