MBTA janitors bring labor issue to the feds

–Brian Feulner / The Boston Globe

The union representing janitors who clean the MBTA’s transit stations filed federal complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing the two private companies who hold the T’s cleaning contracts did not properly negotiate with their workers.

The filings came midday Thursday, the day the 32BJ SEIU says the companies will lay off dozens of the cleaning workers they represent.

Separately, Roxana Rivera, the union’s vice president, wrote to MBTA acting General Manager Brian Shortsleeve, urging the transit agency to reverse plans to cut payments to the two companies, prompting the layoffs.

The union filed a complaint apiece against SJ Services and ABM Janitorial Services, arguing neither company properly followed collective bargaining rules.

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“[T]he employer has taken such action without negotiating in good faith with [the union] concerning the changes, the process of selecting employees for reductions of hours and/or layoffs, the process for implementing the changes, and the impact of such changes on affected employees,” one of the complaints reads.

The union says 76 of more than 300 jobs could be lost today, but the MBTA says the number is 34. Union spokesman Eugenio Villasante also says several full-time employees will be bumped into part-time roles, threatening their healthcare benefits.

Neither SJ Services or ABM immediately responded to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for the NLRB confirmed the filing, and said the federal agency’s regional office will investigate.

The janitors have been pushing back against the cuts over the last several weeks, including through a protest last week in the office of Gov. Charlie Baker, whose administration oversees the T. The workers have rallied to argue their jobs should be protected, and also claimed the T’s stations will grow dirty with fewer janitors working fewer hours.

The T has said it does not control the staffing levels of the contractors, and that it is merely enforcing the terms of a contract first signed three years ago during the tenure of former Gov. Deval Patrick. The contract holds the cleaning companies to certain performance standards with the threat of penalty and does not specify employment levels, according to T spokesman Joe Pesaturo.

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“It is up to the contractors to ensure they have sufficient personnel to meet the contract’s requirements,” Pesaturo said in an email. “The MBTA will continue to hold its contractors to the highest standards so customers will be provided with a clean, comfortable and reliable transit system.”

The companies seemed set for layoffs in 2014, with up to 90 job losses expected as the contract kicked into its second year.

That possibility brought protests from the janitors, who accumulated political support from several state and city leaders. Ultimately, the MBTA asked the companies to maintain their staffing levels as the agency sought other solutions to cut costs. The T has been overpaying the companies since, Pesaturo said.

“It is unclear why the previous administration and former GM [Beverly] Scott made decisions to make payments over and above the contract’s requirements,” he said. “The current leadership team is focused on making sure fare-payers and taxpayers are getting the most value for their money.”

Earlier this summer, Shortsleeve picked up two option years on the contract. The T will save $8.1 million over the next two years by enforcing the terms of the contract, according to Pesaturo.

In the letter to Shortsleeve, Rivera said the T has not fully accounted for why it overpaid the contractors. She suggested the T could be conflating the janitorial costs with other services offered by the companies, such as snow removal.

“At this point we are asking the MBTA to reverse their decision to implement deep cuts to their cleaning contracts until we are provided with a clear accounting of the costs associated with these contracts over the past three years,” the letter read. “This is the transparency the public deserves, and furthermore the transparency that Governor Baker promised when he asked for the authority to make unilateral changes at the MBTA.”

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Rivera also said she was “thoroughly confused” upon hearing the MBTA picked up the option years on the cleaning contracts, rather than rebidding the janitorial service this year.

“Since the cuts were averted two years ago, we have believed that we were actively engaged with the MBTA in a collaborative process to design a new procurement document for the work to be rebid for September of 2016,” she wrote.

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